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When Drift Hits Home


Editor’s Note: DTN/The Progressive Farmer’s reporting on non-soybean dicamba damage uncovered the uneasiness this issue has caused in rural communities as damage pits neighbor against neighbor and farmers and applicators against the non-farming public. Because of that conflict, this article includes an anonymous source, a rare allowance at DTN, as some rural citizens want to share their stories but do not want the community fallout that can occur when someone speaks out against neighbors.

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) — Images of cupped soybean fields have come to symbolize the dicamba injury crisis underway in farm country in the U.S. But what happens when chemicals like dicamba move beyond the soybean fields of commercial farmers onto the property of rural homeowners, business owners and organic and specialty crop farmers?

In South Dakota, a vegetable farm that was destroyed by dicamba in a matter of weeks last year was hit again this June by another cocktail of herbicides, including dicamba.

An elderly Illinois homeowner has watched her carefully landscaped yard wither for two years in a row from dicamba injury.

A resort owner in Tennessee is fighting to save his gardens, plants, trees and a nearby historic state park after the second consecutive year of dicamba damage.

Over the course of two months, DTN conducted dozens of interviews on non-soybean dicamba injury and found that injured property owners like these face an uphill battle to justice.

State departments of forestry, natural resources and agriculture pass responsibility for non-soybean dicamba injury back and forth between each other, like a hot potato. State regulators are struggling to keep up with the pace of complaints, leading to long delays and unresolved investigations. Even state investigations that find a pesticide applicator at fault can only fine the applicator — not compensate the victim. Laboratories are still learning how to test for dicamba residue effectively, and at what levels. Unless an applicator was flagrantly off label, insurance companies maintain that they are not responsible when dicamba volatilizes and moves off-target. The companies who manufacture the new dicamba herbicides insist that volatility is rare and dicamba injury unusual.

At the end of the day, most of the property owners interviewed face serious financial losses that they will never recover. Some wonder if they will ever be able to grow vegetables or trees in their patch of countryside again if dicamba-tolerant soybean acres and their accompanying dicamba use continues to swell.

“At what point do these rural audiences say I’ve had enough?” said Bill Johnson, a weed scientist with Purdue University. “This is giving all of agriculture a black eye.”

The situation is likely to affect the future registration of the new dicamba herbicides, which are under review by EPA. The agency is watching the situation closely, an EPA spokesperson told DTN.

“EPA is aware of field reports of off-field and non-target crop damage related to the use of dicamba,” the agency said in an email. “Past reports claim damage is mostly to non-dicamba-resistant soybean, but also include peaches, melons, tomatoes, cantaloupe, grapes, pumpkins, alfalfa, non-dicamba-resistant cotton, peanuts, peas, organic crops, residential/ ornamental gardens and other non-target crops. We are actively collecting this information from states and EPA regional personnel in order to fully understand the circumstances and scope of the issues.”

FINANCIAL LOSSES WITH NO COMPENSATION

In Aurora, South Dakota, John Seward runs Little Shire Farm, a farm that grows 415 varieties of vegetables. The farm sells Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, wherein a customer pays a set amount each season and receives weekly deliveries of vegetables.

Starting in early August last year, Seward noticed his eggplants looked odd. Then the sunflowers and tomato plants started to curl and wilt. Lettuce crinkled up, and sweet pea pods became deformed and inedible.

Samples taken by the South Dakota Department of Agriculture confirmed that his vegetables had been hit by dicamba. Seward estimates he lost more than $11,000 in unharvested crops, destroyed seed, and lost fall and winter CSA crop shares.

With the state’s laboratory results, he thought he had a good case with his neighbor’s insurance company for full compensation. But Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company found that his neighbor had applied the dicamba product on label and thus was not liable for any damage that occurred — a common conclusion among damaged soybean claims last year, as well. The volatility that produced that damage is, according to liability insurers, a defect of the product and the fault of the manufacturer, not the applicator. (See a DTN story on this issue here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

Seward joined a class-action lawsuit against the dicamba manufacturers last year, but has no expectation of ever recovering his losses. “These lawsuits will drag on for years, and there’s no guarantee they’ll result in anything,” he said.

This year, buoyed by seed and monetary donations from the community, Seward replanted his usual mix of vegetables. By mid-June, the crops started to show signs of chemical damage, once again. Tests run by the South Dakota Department of Agriculture came back positive for a cocktail of dicamba, atrazine, 2,4-D, metolachlor and glyphosate.

Seward’s experience is an increasingly common one in soybean-producing states, where 40 million acres of dicamba-tolerant soybeans have been planted this year, university weed scientists told DTN. There is no mandatory reporting system in place for all non-soybean dicamba injury, but at least 10 states in the Midwest, South and West have reported official dicamba injury complaints to non-soybean acres to the Association of American Pesticide Control Officials (AAPCO). Missouri, for example, is reporting dicamba injury to hundreds of acres of peaches, watermelons, grapes, berries, alfalfa, residential trees, fruit trees, personal and commercial gardens, shrubs, flowers and greenhouse vegetables.

In one way, Seward is fortunate to be able to monetize most of his losses, noted Johnson. Damage to other plants, such as trees or ornamentals, aren’t as easily measured.

The Illinois homeowner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her from reprisals in her community, has suffered severe damage to a wide variety of trees — oak, Bradford pear, blue spruces and catalpas — as well as ornamental plants, shrubs and a vegetable garden. She sent samples to a private laboratory last year, which found dicamba in them. Between lab testing, dead branch and tree removals, and rescue fertilizer and soil conditioning treatments, she and her husband have spent $10,000 already, she said.

In Tennessee, Mike Hayes runs the Blue Bank Resort on the shores of Reelfoot Lake, a natural wonder formed when a series of massive earthquakes struck at the New Madrid Fault between 1911 and 1912 and temporarily forced the Mississippi River to flow backwards, filling this 15,000-acre lake.

For the past three years, Hayes has spent half-a-million dollars turning his hunting and fishing outfitter business on the lake into a polished, professional resort.

Last year, Hayes experienced wave after wave of dicamba exposure. It wiped out the resort’s garden — which supplies the on-site restaurant — three times before Hayes gave up. He estimates it killed 20% of the young trees he planted, mostly crape myrtles and conifers, as well as a butterfly garden he built as an added attraction. This year, he estimates he has been hit eight separate times by dicamba. He expects five cypress trees to die this year and worries about the birds that nest in the lake region, namely ospreys and bald eagles.

Nearby, the Reelfoot Lake State Park has experienced two years of similar damage to its cypress trees, many of which grow within the lake itself after they were flooded more than a century ago. Since the trees can’t sprout at the current lake depths, replacements aren’t an option, Hayes noted.

“Once they die, those trees can’t grow back,” he said.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture sampled both Hayes’ property and the state park’s and produced positive dicamba tests last year. But Hayes will receive no compensation from the state investigation, and neither he nor the state regulators have determined exactly where the dicamba came from. The Blue Bank Resort and state park are surrounded by fertile Mississippi Delta bottomlands, where thousands of acres of soybeans are planted regularly. Dicamba damage can take anywhere from 10 days to a month to show up, which makes for a murky timeline, Hayes noted.

“And the big problem is that it could have come from anywhere, so how do you prove where the damage came when there are eight different farms using it around you?” he said.

Source: Emily Unglesbee, DTN

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