A ban on dicamba use in Arkansas took effect Sunday, the start of the fourth season for the sometimes-fitful effort by state regulators and farmers to deal with an herbicide that can be as damaging to some crops, gardens, trees and shrubs as it is to the weeds it targets.
Dicamba complaints in Arkansas grew from about three dozen in 2016 to more than 1,000 in 2017. The state Plant Board received about 200 complaints of dicamba damage last year, when farmers had an April 15 cutoff, leading officials to believe a number of farmers violated the ban. The board is still in varying degrees of assessing those complaints.
Farmers who planted soybean varieties not tolerant of dicamba filed most of the complaints during those three years, but others who commercially raise vegetables and other crops filed complaints as well. Overseers of research plots operated by the University of Arkansas and seed companies also reported damage, as did nonfarm homeowners who cited damage to ornamental shrubs, trees and backyard gardens.
The state's largest commercial beekeeper moved his several thousand beehives to Mississippi earlier this year, closed his honey-processing plant and retail sales operation, and put his house on the market because, he said, dicamba has damaged red vine and other vegetation crucial to bees' ability to pollinate.
The potential for another controversial summer has prompted a conservation group to set up a monitoring program and moved other farmers to list their dicamba-susceptible crops on an online registry.
Four dicamba complaints have been filed this year, a typical number for this early in the planting season. Complaints tend to mount during the summer, when farmers feel more pressure from weeds that are now resistant to other herbicides and when, according to weed scientists, higher temperatures increase dicamba's tendency to move off target as a vapor hours after application.
The ban taking effect today runs through Oct. 31 and applies to the use of four new formulations of dicamba touted by their manufacturers and marketers as being less volatile than older, generic predecessors. The four are Engenia by BASF, FeXapan by DowDuPont, Tavium by Syngenta and XtendiMax by Monsanto, now owned by Bayer. The federal Environmental Protection Agency approved the Syngenta dicamba last month.
A Plant Board emergency rule that banned the use of older formulations of dicamba took effect April 16.
As pigweed in Arkansas and weeds in other states developed a tolerance to glyphosate (commonly known as Roundup), Monsanto developed soybeans and cotton seeds that would be tolerant of dicamba and marketed the seeds and its new dicamba as a package, called Xtend. Many farmers who planted the seeds tout high yields and weed-free fields; other farmers say they planted the new seeds only out of self-protection.
Arkansas farmers last year planted 3.2 million acres of soybeans -- the state's largest crop, by acreage -- with the vast majority of those being dicamba-tolerant.
Home use of the weedkiller isn't restricted, and the herbicide also can be used on pastures, rangeland and forestry with certain restrictions. Farmers who plant inside Mississippi River levees can apply dicamba after today only after receiving a special permit from the Plant Board.
A wet spring hasn't helped farmers, said Terry Fuller, who represents the Arkansas Seed Growers Association on the Plant Board. "There's not a lot [soybeans] that's been planted and not a lot sprayed. I hope folks realize that the law has changed and how much easier it's going to be to find a violation of the ban," Fuller said, referring to the possibility that farmers, feeling weed pressure, could spray past today's ban.
The Arkansas General Assembly amended state law this year, making it clearer on when the Plant Board can levy fines of up to $25,000 for "egregious" violations of state pesticide laws.
"I think any in-crop use of dicamba [after today] would be considered egregious, but that's coming from just one guy," said Fuller, one of 14 Plant Board members with voting privileges.
Other states have reported similar problems, with weed scientists and others questioning the safety of the newer formulations and dicamba manufacturers citing errors by applicators. The EPA last fall, however, said it would allow in-crop use of dicamba through the 2020 farm season, with certain buffers, and then re-evaluate the herbicide's future.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in November that emails obtained through the state's Freedom of Information Act showed that EPA scientists had recommended in-field buffers of as much as 443 feet to help protect endangered species of plants and animals. Ultimately, agency administrators set the new buffers at 57 feet where endangered species may exist and carried over 110-foot downwind buffers from last year's regulations. Plant Board Director V.O. "Butch" Calhoun said he hopes farmers abide by the ban but inspectors "will be ready to go" if and when any complaints come in. He said a few farmers have asked about an extension of the dicamba ban because planting and early spraying have been delayed by heavy spring rains. No formal request has been filed, and the board hasn't discussed the matter. Any such extension would have to be done by emergency rule, Calhoun said.
Audubon Arkansas will be active this summer in monitoring for dicamba damage on public lands, Dan Scheiman, the group's bird conservation director, said.
Dozens of Audubon Arkansas' members attended a Plant Board public hearing earlier this year when it was deciding how, and whether, to restrict the herbicide's use this summer. Audubon Arkansas supported the continuation of last year's April 16 cutoff and criticized the board when it voted 9-6 to extend dicamba's use deep into May after a hearing that lasted about nine hours and attracted about 250 people.
The conservation group is in the final stages of developing the program, which involves a cellphone application that can map the sites where volunteers believe they've found signs of dicamba damage.
"We're going to recruit volunteers to go to public lands and look for dicamba symptomology," Scheiman said.
Those lands will include parks in the middle of towns in farm country, state parks and wildlife management areas, with a particular emphasis on areas between Crowley's Ridge and the Mississippi River. Most complaints of dicamba damage originated in Mississippi, Crittenden, Craighead and St. Francis counties in eastern Arkansas.
Scheiman said he doesn't have an estimate yet on how many volunteers will participate. Volunteers will be given a set of documents and photographs of dicamba damage and information on species of plants and other vegetation susceptible to the herbicide. The observers' information, including photographs, will be relayed to Audubon Arkansas for further investigation.
Dicamba damage found by the group will be presented to the Plant Board as "part of the argument to reinstate the ban on dicamba, to show there's damage to native plants and here's the evidence," Scheiman said.
The Plant Board and the University of Arkansas' Agriculture Division also have been active in getting farmers, beekeepers and others to register crops with FieldWatch, a nonprofit online registry started in 2008 by Purdue University. Arkansas began working with the operation after a presentation to the Plant Board by a FieldWatch representative about two years ago.
FieldWatch now has 237 registered Arkansas growers who've listed 1,951 fields comprising nearly 148,000 acres, Victor Ford, interim associate director of agriculture and natural resources with the UA Agriculture Division, said Thursday.
Federal pesticide law requires applicators to know the location of crops susceptible to the chemicals they spray, and the online registries help with that, Ford said. Ford said 111 spray applicators have registered.
FieldWatch's registry for apiaries, called Beecheck, lists 20 Arkansas apiaries and 102 hives, Ford said. Driftwatch is a registry for specialty crops, such as fruits and vegetables, organic farms, certified organic farms, peanuts and the state's new hemp farms.
Largely because of the dicamba problems, the Agriculture Division successfully pushed FieldWatch to create Cropcheck, a registry for rice, cotton and soybean fields, and helped pay for it.
Limited to Arkansas this year, Cropcheck goes nationwide next year, Stephanie Regagnon, told members of the advisory Arkansas Agriculture Board earlier this month. "There's still a lot of acreage we want to get into the system," Regagnon said.
Arkansas growers' participation has increased 1,700% since January and is already higher than that in Missouri, which has been in the FieldWatch program for six years, she said.
SundayMonday Business on 05/26/2019
Print Headline: New cutoff on dicamba use starts in state