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Illegal herbicide use may threaten survival of Missouri's largest peach farm

Illegal herbicide use may threaten survival of Missouri's largest peach farm

From the Dicamba coverage by the Post-Dispatch series

DUNKLIN COUNTY, Mo. • Conveyor belts teem with peaches inside the packing facility at Bader Farms, where fruit is prepared for shipment from its Bootheel source to stores across a nearly 500-mile radius.

Harvest season is in full swing, and although it’s always hard work — demanding 18-hour days — this time of year usually affords the farm’s owner, Bill Bader, a gratifying sense of relief.

But apprehension and worry weigh on him this year.

Right outside, Bader can hardly stand looking at the 900 acres of peach trees that fill his orchards. Some have limbs that are almost entirely defoliated, while countless others have tufts of leaves that are crinkled and yellow, or remain green but are full of holes.

“That’s why you come out here and look at them early in the morning, ’cause you don’t wanna think about them at night,” Bader said, surveying a field of peach trees.

While investigators from the state Department of Agriculture continue to search for an official diagnosis, Bader believes he is one of many area farmers victimized by dicamba, a drift-prone herbicide suspected of causing widespread damage to crops in southeastern Missouri and beyond.

The problem has reached a fever pitch in the Bootheel, where more than 100 complaints of drift have been reported since late June — exceeding the Department of Agriculture’s usual statewide caseload for an entire year. Kevin Bradley, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri and a lead agricultural extension scientist, said that everything he’s seen suggests dicamba is responsible for crop damage on farms across the area, though he has not observed Bader’s case firsthand.

Bader’s farm, in Campbell, Mo. — situated in rolling hills just west of the Bootheel’s level expanses of soybeans, rice, corn and cotton — is Missouri’s largest producer of peaches, accounting for more than half of the state’s harvest. But even with much of this year’s crop still to be picked, Bader is bracing for production to take a dramatic hit.

He says the farm’s typical harvest of 5 million to 6 million pounds may be reduced by 40 percent this year, as trees with withered or missing leaves have borne smaller fruit. Bader reports that almost 10,000 other trees mustered only walnut-sized peaches not even worth picking. He says the shortfall will amount to a loss of produce of $1.5 million to $2 million.

And it could get worse. By next spring, Bader worries that he may lose up to 450 acres of trees — half his total — from suspected drift. He has already determined that 200 to 250 acres are irreparably damaged and need to be removed, and he’ll see whether another 150 to 200 acres of trees can improve by spring. If not, they’ll get “pushed” with a bulldozer.

Bader blames the problem on people he calls “dicamba outlaws” — area farmers suspected of unauthorized or “off-label” use of the herbicide.

Though dicamba has been around for decades, new technology is bringing it to the fore as weeds develop greater resistance to glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup.

To combat them, Monsanto, the Creve Coeur-based biotech seed company, released genetically modified cotton that is resistant to dicamba in 2015 and, this year, started selling a variety of dicamba-resistant soybeans. But the company’s corresponding dicamba herbicide is still awaiting approval from the Environmental Protection Agency — leaving farmers without a complete package of products.

Despite clear warnings forbidding use of dicamba substitutes, it’s believed that a number of farmers went ahead and sprayed other forms of the herbicide, hurting nearby farmers with non-resistant crops.

“The dicamba volatizes and drifts,” said Bader, referring to the chemical’s tendency to form vapor that can cover a wide area. “It damages pretty much all non-GMO crops.”

Monsanto’s dicamba formulation seeking approval is supposedly less volatile, aiming to minimize drift. But at present, suspected drift from older, more volatile dicamba mixtures has plagued farmers around the region.

Soybeans are highly sensitive, with their leaves cupping on contact with the chemical, and symptoms resembling dicamba exposure have surfaced in tomatoes, melons and a range of other crops. The leaves on Bader’s peach trees seem to be no exception.

“When you lose 40 to 60 percent of your leaves, that’s when you lose on size (of the fruit), because you don’t have enough leaves to feed the peach correctly,” Bader said.

He says affected trees can’t adequately produce both leaves and fruit as they try to recover.

“We’re trying to grow peaches and leaves at the same time, and that’s what’s killing us,” Bader said.

Bader says he first began to notice warning signs of dicamba damage on his farm about June of last year — the same year that dicamba-resistant cotton was introduced. He says the damage was lighter and much more limited that summer.

After harvest, trace amounts of dicamba turned up in the results of an insurance company’s investigation into a separate instance of crop damage involving non-dicamba herbicides, conducted in April 2015.

The farmer fought aggressively to save the 150 acres of trees that showed symptoms in 2015, treating them with micro-nutrients such as zinc, calcium and dextrose.

“I spent $200,000 last year trying to get trees healthy,” said Bader. “You can’t just give up.”

By June of this year, he thought he had it beat, as what looked to be a bumper crop of peaches was taking shape. But dicamba symptoms came back with a vengeance in June and July — when drift complaints started pouring into the state Department of Agriculture and when hot temperatures enable the herbicide to vaporize more easily.

This year’s experiences have bolstered Bader’s conviction that dicamba drift is to blame. Besides the distinctive damage to his trees’ leaves, exposed parts of the orchard — away from windblocks or in small valleys where vapor may settle — seem to be where the damage is concentrated.

Bader recognizes that he’s not alone.

“With the farm economy what it is, it’s going to put a financial burden on not just me, but several other farmers in the area that they won’t be able to recoup without some financial help,” Bader said.

Courts may have to determine where that help comes from. With insurance companies refusing to compensate for crop loss caused by illegal herbicide applications, farmers around the region are “lawyering up” as they prepare for the dispute to spill from the fields into the courtroom.

“The bad thing about this whole deal is you got farmers against farmers right now. You got neighbors against neighbors,” Bader said. “It’s a small percentage (of farmers) that don’t care about no one except themselves and they’ve created a big problem.”

For Bader, that problem is much more than a one-year nuisance. It takes five years for peach trees to reach maturity and the ability to turn a profit, meaning he could feel the pain from this setback for years.

Bader feels that a harsher fine — which currently is only $1,000 —needs to be put in place to discourage illegal spraying.

But even if less-volatile dicamba is made available and steeper fines are put in place by the legislature, Bader questions whether it will be the cure-all that farmers are counting on.

He expects that “some of these outlaws are gonna buy the cheap form” if the new dicamba proves to be more expensive.

Asked what he’ll do if dicamba worries persist, Bader is unsure.

“It’s kind of a question I don’t want to answer,” he said. “I just hope we can get it worked out.”

His wife, Denise Bader, puts the situation in starker terms.

“We can’t take another year like this,” she said, adding that suspected dicamba use threatens to unravel their business that has been a generation in the making.

“We might lose all of (our trees),” she said. “We don’t know what the outcome will be.”

The EPA's review process for Monsanto's new form of dicamba is expected to conclude by late summer or early fall. When used appropriately, the agency states that dicamba does not pose health risks to humans and does “not cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.” Bader also reports that he has tested his peaches and confirmed that they are safe for consumption.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Aug. 15 at 10:45 a.m. to note that dicamba is not associated with any human health concerns, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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