The fields and back roads of eastern Arkansas were a crime scene this past summer. State inspectors stopped alongside fields to pick up dying weeds. They tested the liquids in farmers’ pesticide sprayers. In many cases, they found evidence that farmers were using a banned pesticide. Dozens of farmers could face thousands of dollars in fines.
The roots of the confrontation go back to a farming fiasco that took place last year. That’s when the company Monsanto — now owned by Bayer — rolled out a new way to kill weeds. The company had created some special new varieties of soybeans and cotton that can tolerate a weedkiller called dicamba. Farmers could spray dicamba to kill their weeds, yet these new crops would survive. (It’s a weed-killing strategy that Monsanto pioneered with "Roundup Ready" crops 20 years ago, but Roundup isn’t working so well anymore. Weeds have become resistant to it.)
"Honestly, I don’t think anybody in the whole world dreamed the dicamba could create such an issue, bring so many farmers against farmers,” says Terry Fuller, a member of Arkansas’ state plant board, which regulates pesticides.
When farmers started spraying dicamba on these new crops, the chemical didn’t stay where it belonged. It drifted across the landscape and injured millions of acres of regular crops. The problem was especially bad in Arkansas.
Farmers who sprayed dicamba loved it, but Fuller and the plant board decided that the collateral damage was unacceptable. “Trespassing on your neighbor and your friend, that’s not my definition of good for business,” he told me last year.
So the plant board passed the most dramatic limits on dicamba in the country. They banned spraying dicamba after April 15 each year — which covers the entire growing season
By mid-June of this year, though, it was clear that some farmers were defying the ban, especially in Mississippi County, in the northeastern corner of the state.
Thousands of acres of soybeans that couldn’t tolerate the weedkiller, as well as trees in people’s yards, once again were showing the classic signs of dicamba damage: curled leaves and stunted growth.
Fuller called it “a sad situation. Really, an unbelievable situation.”
Faced with a challenge to its authority, the plant board got aggressive. It didn’t wait for other farmers to report cases of damage; most of the time those complaints didn’t lead to an obvious culprit. It was impossible to figure out where the dicamba fumes came from, because they can drift for a mile or more.
Instead, inspectors went looking for […]