Magazine May 2019

Dicamba: From the Plant Board to Legislators to Farmers


Dicamba drifts from Plant Board to Legislature to the state’s farmers.

Shawn Peebles, a third-generation farmer in Augusta, didn’t realize he had become the face of the movement against the use of dicamba in Arkansas until he learned his picture appeared on a mailer sent across the state in February. 

by Jeremy Peppas

“I didn’t even know I was going to be on that mailer,” he says with a laugh.

Dicamba is a herbicide that comes in liquid, dust and granule forms and can be found in more than 1,100 products sold in the United States. When properly applied and used with dicamba-resistant seed, the herbicide does precisely what it is supposed to – kill pigweed and increase soybean production. Unfortunately, when sprayed, dicamba drifts and doesn’t always land where it was intended to. That has had a devastating impact on neighboring farms, where non-dicamba-resistant crops and plants have withered and died.

According to University of Arkansas professor Jason Norsworthy, dicamba vaporizes at higher temperatures and with the level of humidity experienced in an Arkansas’ summer, it’s led to more drift locally.

“These guys are the smartest scientists in Arkansas, in the South, and they’re telling us there’s a problem with dicamba,” Peebles says. “Every weed scientist you consult tells you this is a problem. It is just fundamentally wrong. If we can’t regulate ourselves – and we can’t – what are we going to do?”

According to the National Institutes of Health, dicamba is moderately toxic by ingestion and slightly toxic by inhalation or exposure to the skin. Symptoms of dicamba poisoning include loss of appetite, vomiting, muscle weakness, slowed heart rate, shortness of breath, central nervous system effects (victim may become excited or depressed), benzoic acid in the urine, incontinence, cyanosis (bluing of the skin and gums), and exhaustion following repeated muscle spasms. In addition to these symptoms, inhalation can cause irritation of the linings of the nasal passages and the lungs, and loss of voice.

The risk from pesticides and changing market forces caused Peebles to change his approach to farming. He made the switch to organic farming about 12 years ago because, according to him, he was “broke. Flat broke.” He had been growing 7,000 acres of conventional row crops of soybeans and rice, so the transition was a big one. Peebles says he made the change after meeting Searcy farmer Jody Taylor, who was doing organic farming in White County and showed him its economic benefits.  

“People think ‘hippie environmentalist’ when they hear organics,” Peebles says. “But the numbers showed there was big money in it. So I had a barn sale, sold everything I owned, and I started farming 150 acres of organic soybeans.”

He now has 60 employees and grows edamame, corn, green beans, sweet potatoes and processor pumpkins on 2,000 acres, following the guidelines to have the crops certified as organic produce.

“Organics, it was a means to an end for me,” he adds. 

Peebles was among the farmers who served on a dicamba task force formed by the governor nearly two years ago.

“When I got involved, I realized how bad a product it was,” he says. “It kills. It is a dangerous chemical, volatile and uncontrollable.”

He spoke against the herbicide at a state Plant Board meeting in February and has continued to speak out against it as the board met again to clarify its earlier meeting and ultimately decided to put in a 120-day emergency rule that prohibits the use of older formulations of dicamba after April 15, with the state Legislature signing off on it on April 1.

The emergency rule put in place prohibits older dicamba to be used from April 16 to August 13 and calls for a mile buffer, in all directions, from research stations, specialty crops and certified organic crops, with a half-mile buffer, in all directions, from other crops like conventional soybeans and cotton, which aren’t tolerant to dicamba.

The buffer zone was another issue for Peebles.

“The applicator doesn’t know,” he says. “They don’t know where it goes, because it drifts out and could (land) miles away.”

A dispute between neighboring farmers over the use of dicamba and its disastrous effect led to the shooting death of Craighead County farmer Mike Wallace in 2016. Police said at the time that Wallace and neighboring farmhand Allan Jones, of Arbyrd, Mo., had a dispute over the spraying of dicamba that ruined Wallace’s crops. Jones was found guilty of homicide and sentenced to 24 years in prison.

“I knew Mike Wallace,” Peebles says. “I farmed near Paragould, and I knew him and knew his wife. With what was approved, with dicamba, you are going to see more bad feelings.”

But it might also mean more soybeans are wildly lucrative for Arkansas farmers.

“The pure value of the state’s soybean crop in 2017 was $1.74 billion,” says Scott Stiles an instructor in economics at the University of Arkansas’ Division of Agriculture. “It’s estimated that soybeans have a value-added impact of roughly $817 million for the state in terms of additional jobs an economic activity.”

Nationally, Arkansas ranks 10th in the country in terms of soybean production, in figures from Arkansas Farm Bureau and at 3.1 million acres, that’s more than rice, corn, sorghum and wheat combined in the state.

“The percentage of the acreage planted to the dicamba technology will be greater in 2019 than it was in 2018,” says Jeremy Ross of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “However, just in the last few months, two other herbicides have been approved, Enlist and LibertyLink GT27. These two technologies will have limited acreage due to variety selection, but they will gain increased acreage in the future.”

Peebles, who spoke while driving through a rainstorm, says this year’s forecast is another potential problem for farmers.

“It is raining now, and we are going to have a very wet spring,” he says. “I think you are going to see a lot of damage from dicamba this year, and I expect an emergency ban to be put in place.

“Farmers are going to have less days to spray,” he adds. “You can’t spray when it rains, and when you have a dry day, you are going to have all these farmers out, and you are going to get more chemical in the air, and you’ll see 10 times as much damage.”

And not necessarily just to the crops.

“It is going to be environmental,” Peebles says. “It is going to be environmental damage, and people will see that this is a problem.” 

UPDATE: A reference to the former agricultural firm Monsanto, now a part of Bayer Crop Science, was removed from the article for accuracy. (5/6/2019)

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