by Alex Gladden
Mike Wallace was one of almost 1,000 Arkansas farmers to report his complaints to the Arkansas State Plant Board about an herbicide that contains dicamba. He lodged the complaint after a neighbor sprayed dicamba, and it spread to his land, killing some of his crops. Wallace eventually met with Allan Jones, an employee on the neighboring farm, and Jones shot and killed Wallace, leaving his wife to continue farming without him.
That was in October of 2016. I heard the story this month. I offhandedly mentioned dicamba that day at lunch in a casual conversation with a friend. His eyes grew wide, and he began explaining the debate that grew out of the dicamba-related complaints. I sat in rapt attention as the friend, a senior horticulture major at the University of Arkansas, explained the controversy surrounding dicamba and Wallace’s death. We talked about the plant board and the Arkansas Dicamba Task Force that Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed to evaluate the dicamba complaints. My friend recalled that a Gladden was on the committee.
I remembered that my grandfather, Dan Gladden, whom we have always called Pops, was on an agriculture-related committee, and I called him – surprised to learn that he was on the task force that made the decision to ban dicamba during the growing period, between April 16 and Oct. 31. And it was this decision that eventually led the plant board to approve the task force’s ruling, sending the proposal to Hutchinson and then to the state legislative council, said Wes Ward, Arkansas Agriculture secretary. Both Hutchinson and the council backed the plan, putting it into effect Feb. 1. Because of these moves by the state government, Monsanto launched a lawsuit challenging the decision – a suit that Feb. 16 an Arkansas judge tossed out, leaving some to question if Arkansas is allowing judicial review to take place.
A Budding Controversy
Hutchinson appointed my grandfather to the task force because he is the executive director of the Arkansas Plant Food Association. On the committee, made up of 18 people, he represented the interests of fertilizer companies in the state.
After hours of discussion and review of research from both outside scientists and scientists with Monsanto – the company that is the main distributor of dicamba formulations – the committee members decided to enforce the ban, coming to a decision that 75 percent of the force approved of. The Report of the 2017 State of Arkansas Dicamba Task Force Meetings shows that the group went through four rounds of voting before choosing to enforce the ban and revisit the decision in 2019 after more research has been done.
I have lived in Arkansas for most of my life. The Gladden family marks its arrival to Arkansas in the late 1800s. I knew that my state relied heavily on its agriculture. Agriculture, Arkansas’ largest industry, brings the state economy about $16 billion each year, according to the Arkansas Farm Bureau. But before beginning my research, I couldn’t imagine the pain and divisiveness that an herbicide could spread.
Before Hutchinson created the task force, the plant board moved to an emergency ban of the sale and use of all dicamba products in June 2017. Hutchinson signed off on the effort July 1, barring farmers from dicamba for 120 days.
The task force met twice in August and heard research from University of Arkansas professor Jason Norsworthy and representatives of Monsanto and BASF, companies that sell herbicides that contain dicamba as their active ingredients, according to the Report of the 2017 State of Arkansas Dicamba Task Force Meetings.
So what’s up with Dicamba?
Norsworthy cited eight field trials of dicamba that developed from research both he and colleagues across the nation have conducted, according to video footage of his presentation to the task force. His studies indicated that dicamba products tend to have a higher volatility, which happens when the herbicide converts to a gas after the farmer sprays a field. Volatility differs from a physical drift, which happens when herbicide droplets stray from the field site before they ever hit the field. When dicamba strays from its intended target – which is often pigweed, a frustrating plant that can take over a field without the proper equipment to push it back – Norsworthy’s work shows that the herbicide can kill crops and other plants like trees and shrubs.
“I want every tool that I can put in my toolbox. We need every tool, but also we can’t be killing oak trees,” Norsworthy said at the meeting.
Norsworthy referenced Tom Barber who conducted a field trial in Rohwer. His findings contended that at about 300 feet from where farmers apply the herbicide to weeds, dicamba can still damages plants at a rate of 5 percent – greatly differing from the instructions that Monsanto gives for its product, which state that the buffer zone should be at 110 feet.
But the Monsanto researcher team, led by Ty Whitten, John Hemminghaus and Tom Orr, claimed the majority of problems with dicamba stem from the physical drift that results from farmers incorrectly spraying their fields. Their most recent research originates primarily from control studies. This means their trials take field studies and measure the amount of dicamba that comes off the fields. They then use an Environmental Protection Agency program to incorporate weather data from across the county and estimate wind conditions, which would influence how dicamba might spread. To finish the study, the researchers use a modelling system to put the data together and determine how dicamba should hypothetically concentrate in the air and spread in different areas of the country. This type of study has never estimated the air concentration for a field greater than 80 acres, and it has also never used more than 10 acres of land to get the initial number for how much dicamba comes off of fields.
When faced with the conflicting data, Pops said the task force tried to keep in mind that nothing the researchers said applied absolutely.
“I don’t think anybody can draw a line and say that it can be absolutely 300 feet – just like the chemical companies can’t absolutely say that it’s 100 feet,” he said.
The committee members each had to work together and negotiate to figure out something that would work for Arkansas farmers. Farmers need something to help them fight pigweed, a nasty plant that can easily take over a field. The weed became resistant to Roundup after widespread use starting in the 1970s, and farmers have been looking for something to help them battle the plant. They thought dicamba might be the answer.
“Farmers fighting pigweed probably feel like they don’t have options because they can’t use dicamba,” Ward said.
The task force tried to figure out an answer that could still help the farmers with pigweed and keep dicamba-related complaints from sprouting, Pops said. He thought that enforcing a ban during the growing period would be a good solution, allowing farmers to use dicamba for burn down, a process that uses herbicides to kill weeds and prepare to start producing crops, throughout the rest of the year. This way, when dicamba is in use, other crops won’t suffer, he said. Dicamba is also shown to be much more likely to become more volatile the hotter the temperature is, according to research from both Norsworthy and Monsanto representatives. If dicamba is used in winter months, it is much less likely to spread.
Monsanto’s Growing Frustrations
It’s no secret that Monsanto is a company with a bad reputation. The company produced Agent Orange, the herbicide that the United States military sprayed over Vietnam during the 1960s and affected approximately 3 million Vietnamese people, according to The Aspen Institute. Monsanto is engrossed in a battle with California to avoid putting cancer-warning labels on Roundup. And 24/7 Wall St. ranked Monsanto as the 16th most hated company in the United States. Now, there’s dicamba. The company has lost its suit against the Arkansas Plant Board, and now Monsanto is evaluating its next options, said Scott Partridge, vice president of global strategies for the company. Partridge is worried that Arkansas is setting a precedent that judicially protects state agencies at the expense of Arkansas residents.
“I find it amazing that we basically have a kingdom in the state of Arkansas,” Partridge said.
Partridge thinks the issue needs to be addressed in the Arkansas Supreme Court, and Monsanto representatives are considering appealing the decision there. Partridge blames the dicamba-related problems in Arkansas on misuse by farmers – a claim that Arkansas scientists and officials have disputed.
Affecting Real Lives
After talking with Pops about his actions as a part of the task force, I asked him about farmers he knew and what they think about dicamba. He told me that the men who farm the land that he owns in Dumas have both experienced crop damage from the herbicide. I talked to one of these men, Martin Henry, who grows crops on the land that my grandfather inherited from his parents, Zeraldine and Baxter Gladden. My great grandfather Baxter, the man who my father and brother get their names from, moved to Dumas from Yell County between the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. To save up to buy the land that Henry now farms, Baxter bought land which he cleared with a team of horses and then blew up the stumps with dynamite. He’d then resell the land at a profit.
“I work hard. Your daddy works hard, but what a lot of people don’t understand is the truly backbreaking work that was what people of that generation went through,” Pops told me.
My great granddaddy grew cotton on this land, but Henry grows cotton, corn and soybeans. Two years ago, a neighbor sprayed crops with dicamba, and the dicamba accidentally spread to Henry’s crops, reducing the yield by 80 percent as compared to plants that didn’t get hit by the herbicide.
After that year, Henry only bought Monsanto’s GMO cotton and soybeans, which are more expensive than regular cotton and soybeans, but would be protected from dicamba. The United States Department of Agriculture cleared farmers to start planting the new crops in 2015 – a year before the EPA cleared the company’s corresponding dicamba formulation, according to Monsanto’s History of Advancement webpage.
The new formulation kills cotton and soybeans that don’t have the modifications that Monsanto’s GMO cotton and soybeans do. “Because if one farmer is using dicamba, the other neighbor is almost afraid not to use (Monsanto GMO cotton and soybeans),” Henry said.
Henry described Monsanto as having monopolized the soybean and cotton industries. Despite this, Henry thinks that Monsanto’s newest formulation of dicamba is the only herbicide that can effectively fight pigweed.
“I think dicamba is a great product, but I wish it could be made to where it doesn’t drift,” he said.
Henry’s sentiments echoed the voices of researchers and committee members who think that Arkansas farmers need herbicide tools to fight pigweed but don’t want farmers to suffer at the cost.
“Basically, it’s like going to the farmer’s house and taking part of his house away. It’s all the farmer’s got,” Henry said.