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Arkansas panel advises dicamba cutoff dates

JONESBORO -- A committee of the state Plant Board on Tuesday recommended that the dicamba herbicide be used only from Jan. 1 to April 15 of farmers' next growing season.

The pesticide committee's 4-0 vote closely follows the recommendation of an 18-member task force that met twice last month.

The full Plant Board, a division of the state Department of Agriculture, will take up the matter Sept. 21 in Little Rock.

Most farmers' planting seasons for soybeans and cotton begin in early May, so the April 15 cutoff date largely limits dicamba to "burn-down," or getting farmland prepared for tillage and planting.

Limiting the use of dicamba on cropland to winter and early spring effectively defeats the purpose of new dicamba herbicides produced by Monsanto, DuPont and BASF for use throughout the growing season on soybeans and cotton genetically modified to be tolerant of the weedkiller. The new seeds and herbicides were developed to help farmers combat pigweed, mare's-tail, waterhemp and other weeds across the United States now tolerant of glyphosate, commonly known as Monsanto's Roundup.

The state on July 11 instituted a 120-day emergency ban on the sale and use of all dicamba products after receiving hundreds of complaints that other crops and vegetation not tolerant of the herbicide had been damaged. As of Monday, those complaints in Arkansas numbered 966, affecting an estimated 1 million acres of soybeans alone.

Danny Finch, a Plant Board member from Jonesboro, suggested putting a date -- Jan. 1 -- at the front end of the spraying season as a measure of protection for fruit orchards, beehive operations, fall gardens and ornamental trees and shrubs. Allowing dicamba on farms from Sept. 15 to April 15, for example, wouldn't protect those plants, he said.

Finch said the Plant Board wrestled most of last year with approving the new dicamba for Arkansas farmers. "We voted to allow the technology to go to the farmers, to see if it would work," said Finch, whose own soybeans have been damaged. "We're sorry to say, it didn't work."

No mention was made during the two-hour meeting of Monsanto's 33-page letter last week threatening a lawsuit if its new herbicide, called Xtendimax with VaporGrip, isn't approved by Arkansas regulators next year.

The Plant Board allowed only BASF's Engenia herbicide in Arkansas this year because of the lack of independent third-party testing of the Monsanto product for any tendency to move off-target.

The committee also voted to recommend the continuation of a mandatory online training program for herbicide applicators. More than 2,000 applicators took the course this year.

The April 15 cutoff date was spurred, in part, by results of tests by weed scientists with the University of Arkansas System's Agriculture Division. The scientists have said their tests show that even the new dicamba herbicides were moving miles off-target to susceptible crops through "volatility," a climate condition involving high temperatures and little or no wind.

Monsanto and BASF dispute those tests, saying their investigations show most problems this summer were caused by applicator error -- such as disregarding wind speed, wind direction and buffer zones and using the wrong spray nozzles -- or by farmers using unapproved, more volatile formulations of dicamba. The companies have said those problems can be corrected through more training.

Monsanto said last week that members of the Plant Board and the task force had been misled by the state scientists' tests.

The university responded with a statement vouching for its scientists and their work, saying tests by university scientists in other states show similar results.

Rick Cartwright, a UA System vice president and nonvoting member of the Plant Board, said he agreed that more training can solve some of the problems but that, "Volatility's not solvable."

Two other recommendations by the task force -- tightening Arkansas law against the misuse of dicamba and requiring that both the seed and the herbicide for any new technology be ready for the market before either is allowed -- will require legislative action, Larry Jayroe of Forrest City, chairman of the pesticide panel, said. The pesticide panel endorsed both recommendations.

Monsanto sold dicamba-tolerant cottonseed in 2015 and dicamba-tolerant soybeans in 2016 well before winning approval from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for its new herbicide, Xtendimax. That left farmers without a dicamba that was legal to use with the new seeds, until the EPA approved the herbicide last November.

A farm group, the Agricultural Council of Arkansas, this week asked for a change to an Arkansas law that sets fines as high as $25,000 for "egregious" violations be included in any prospective special legislative session this fall.

The increase, from the previous maximum fine of $1,000, was sought by the Plant Board, but lawmakers added language requiring regulators prove that "significant" damage occurred before higher fines could be levied.

Andrew Grobmyer, the group's executive vice president, said the new language was a "fundamental flaw" in any effort to deter farmers from using unapproved formulations of dicamba. The law establishing the $25,000 fines took effect Aug. 1, but it couldn't be applied retroactively to this summer's complaints, almost all of which are still under investigation.

Business on 09/13/2017

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