The current growing year is shaping up to be the perfect storm that could lead to a significant increase in pesticide drift from dicamba products. As a result, I am trying to determine what I need to do on my own small-scale, diversified farm to protect against another dicamba nightmare year.
The on-the-ground evidence has illustrated that these products are dangerous and should be removed from use. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems content to make token changes to the use labels for dicamba pesticides while expanding their availability. As a grower who has dealt with crop losses due to the volatility of these pesticides, I am very disappointed and concerned by what I see in the current trends.
Weather is half the storm
The Upper Midwest has been dealing with weather patterns that makes us feel as if Spring is not interested in making an appearance this year. Soil conditions have remained damp and cold, delaying planting for growers of diversified crops and row croppers alike. We’ve seen this pattern before, and the normal resolution is that temperatures will jump dramatically to levels that we would normally expect during the summer months. In fact, the forecast is calling for a rapid transition in the next few days.
What does that mean for farmers in this region? We will be trying to do all of the work that needs to be done to start our crops in a much shorter period of time than usual. Of course, this means growers will plant seeds into the ground, but it also means most row croppers will be applying synthetic fertilizers and herbicides to their fields with a shorter window of opportunity. When that happens, mistakes are made, rules are bent or broken, and damage is done.
This also means that dicamba products are likely to be applied in conditions that are more likely to encourage volatilization, where the pesticide becomes a vapor and drifts from the target crops. Sometimes this drift occurs days after application — even when the farmer follows all label instructions carefully.
This is where the EPA has consistently failed to fully recognize why dicamba products are not safe for use, especially for application “over-the-top” of growing plants that have been genetically modified to be able to withstand exposure to this pesticide.
EPA fails to see the storm brewing
The EPA is responsible for setting the requirements for application on pesticide use labels. These guidelines provide guidance for everything from weather conditions to the target droplet size leaving the application tool. These instructions carry the weight of federal regulation, and failure to follow them could certainly cause problems for the applicator — assuming anyone can determine where the drift came from.
And that’s one of the issues with dicamba products. Even when applied correctly, weather conditions can cause the chemical to turn back into a gaseous form, lift up from the crop, and travel significant distances before settling down to damage plants that are not in the targeted area.
But, the EPA only made the tiniest of nods in the direction of this issue. They released new label requirements this year for the use of over-the-top (OTT) dicamba in two states. The new cut-off date for application of these products is June 20 in Iowa, and application cannot occur when the temperature is over 85 degrees. In Minnesota, the forecast high is not to exceed 85 degrees and the cut-off date in the southern half of the state has been moved to June 12.
The EPA release on March 15 gave their justification for further limiting the window to apply dicamba:
“Despite the control measures implemented in EPA’s October 2020 dicamba registration decision, incidents from the 2021 growing season show little change in number, severity, or geographic extent of dicamba-related incidents when compared to the reports the Agency received before the 2020 control measures were required.”
In other news, the EPA just announced that another 134 counties in the United States have been approved for the use of Enlist products. Enlist One and Enlist Duo, two dicamba herbicides used on genetically-modified corn, cotton, and soybean crops, can now be used in all counties of Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.
On the one hand, they provide a token change in two states that is unlikely to make dicamba much better than has been since it was first allowed for OTT soybeans and cotton in 2016. And they do this while directly acknowledging that previous adjustments have done nothing to alleviate the problem. And on the other hand, they feel it is useful to spread the damage this product has caused each season to a larger portion of the nation.
The other half of the storm
If anything, a combination of defensive planting by farmers and increasing reticence to report dicamba drift in the face of inadequate response will do more than EPA's changes to reduce reported dicamba-related incidents. Even though this year is shaping up to be perfect for MORE dicamba drift than most years.
You heard it here first. The number of reported incidents will probably go down in 2022. But, it will have nothing to do with EPA finally getting the use label right. Many farmers and growers have been adopting defensive planting practices to protect their own crops. For example, soybean farmers have very candidly indicated that they are now buying “dicamba ready” soybean seed just in case any of their neighbors might decide to use a dicamba herbicide.
But, what if you are a person who raises “alternative crops” in states like Iowa? Well, if those crops have demonstrated that they struggle with exposure to dicamba, you have two choices: stop growing those crops or find some other way to protect them from exposure.
Either way, it doesn’t seem right to me that Farmer Brown can apply dicamba and follow the use label and still have the pesticide drift to Farmer Green. As a result, Farmer Green grows tired of trying to raise their alternative crops and can no longer find the energy to go through with the process of reporting a drift incident. After all, no one will be found responsible — and Farmer Green still loses their crop.
And that’s how the number of incidents reported in 2022 will be lower. It will have nothing to do with the EPA getting the label right. And, it will not reflect what is shaping up to be excellent conditions for more dicamba drift than most years since 2016.
This year, the high temperature at my farm on May 5 is in the mid 50’s and the forecast high for early next week is approaching 85 and windy. Opportunities to follow use labels for any pesticide will be scarce this year. Yet, I have grave doubts that many row crop fields will remain unsprayed.
How many times will I find renewed energy to put my food crops into the ground, knowing that chemical trespass is inevitable again this year? How long until the EPA figures out that dicamba products simply cannot be safely used because the agricultural systems and the weather make it impossible to do so?
The answers are “not many more” and “too long.”