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Weedkiller complaints skyrocket among Illinois farmers

Weedkiller complaints skyrocket among Illinois farmers

From the Dicamba coverage by the Post-Dispatch series
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MASCOUTAH — More farmers have filed official complaints with the state of Illinois about the weedkiller dicamba this year than ever before.

As the herbicide has risen to prominence across a sprawling footprint of U.S. farmland, so have complaints about its use, most claiming the pesticide, applied to nearby fields, had damaged unintended targets.

New data from the Illinois Department of Agriculture now track some of those troubles, showing at least a five-fold increase in complaints — from less than 130 total pesticide misuse reports in 2016 to more than 700 for dicamba alone as of late September this year, making Illinois a national focal point of dicamba grievances.

Farmers say the weedkiller is pitting neighbor against neighbor.

“It took good people and turned them against each other,” said Darryl Stein, who farms near Mascoutah with his two sons. “You can’t be so selfish to put yourself ahead of everybody else and your neighbor.

“You shouldn’t have somebody else’s problem on your ground,” continued Stein.

Seven of the family’s soybean fields “got nailed” again this year by pesticide drift, said Stein’s son John, stunting plant growth in one patch by six inches.

Dicamba has been around for decades, but has attained newfound popularity in the last several years, after Creve Coeur-based Monsanto Co. introduced seed varieties engineered to tolerate the chemical — allowing farmers who buy the seeds to spray directly over the top of those crops.

Many farmers swear by the herbicide’s ability to kill stubborn weeds, especially ones that have developed resistance to the industry’s longtime mainstay, the Monsanto-developed Roundup.

But dicamba can be notoriously hard to control — prone to vaporizing and drifting off target, where even small doses can hurt plants that aren’t genetically engineered to withstand it.

“It crinkles them up, basically,” said Steve Bechtoldt, who farms soy, wheat and corn, and reported dicamba damage earlier this year on one of his soybean fields in Fayetteville, near the Kaskaskia River.

“They were looking pretty bad for a while.”

‘A slap on the hand’

Officials from the multinational pharmaceutical giant Bayer, which acquired Monsanto last year, said dicamba-tolerant seeds have now been adopted across 60 million acres of U.S. soybeans and cotton.

Spokesman Kyel Richard said sales have been strong over the past three years.

“I think growers will continue to choose what’s right for their farm,” he said.

The company’s investigations primarily attribute incidents of damage to improper application techniques and conditions, he said.

“Don’t spray when a susceptible crop is downwind, basically,” said Richard.

The company, he said, has fielded “significantly” fewer dicamba complaints this year than last.

But experts and farmers alike say damage isn’t reliably reported.

“People don’t want to rat out their neighbors,” said Andrew Thostenson, a pesticide specialist for the extension service of North Dakota State University, who has closely followed the nation’s yearslong dicamba saga.

Farmers also don’t want to jeopardize potential crop insurance payments, he said. Dicamba damage isn’t covered.

Thostenson said official damage reports “grossly underestimate the problem out there.”

Others say that many farmers have lost patience with the slow pace of damage investigations by overwhelmed state officials, or have grown frustrated by the lack of consequences.

“The very best-case scenario is you get a report back that says, yes, you were drifted onto with dicamba,” said Kevin Bradley, a University of Missouri plant sciences professor who emerged as a national leader in quantifying dicamba complaints in recent years. “It doesn’t really do anything for the farmer. I think some of them were under the impression they’d get some kind of compensation.”

Farmers say the same thing.

“You don’t like to turn in your neighbor, and if you do, nothing good comes of it,” said Darryl Stein, the Mascoutah farmer.

“I filed six claims a couple years ago and they did nothing — just one citation — and that was a slap on the hand.”

The inevitable

Other areas, like Southeast Missouri’s Bootheel region, have become carpeted with dicamba-tolerant seed varieties.

The Bootheel was an epicenter of dicamba drift. Now it has seen adoption of the technology skyrocket past 95% on its cotton and soybean acreage, Bradley, the Mizzou professor, has estimated. “Clearly in the Bootheel, we reached a critical adoption level, where the complaints, at least from a soybean perspective, all but disappeared,” he said.

Some farmers have said they’ve felt pressured to adopt the system solely to protect themselves, rather than risk damage from off-target movement, equating the feeling to blackmail or “extortion.”

Others are now resigned to accept certain levels of dicamba damage as a new, inevitable way of life.

“On our farm, we do not use that product, but that’s our choice. We are glad it’s a tool in the toolbox,” said Phil Vonder Haar, who farms with his father, Mike, near Greenville, 50 miles east of St. Louis.

In 2017, dicamba damage dented their yields.

But around their Bond County farm, at least, they say nearby farmers are getting better at applying the product, and that their past damage report didn’t tarnish the potential usefulness they see in the weedkiller.

Some in the industry aren’t sold on dicamba.

Regulators keep tweaking the rules for the pesticide’s application, “because that is the easiest thing to do,” Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association, said in the group’s Fall 2019 newsletter. “But we don’t really have a high level of confidence that this is answer.”

And competitors are lining up for a piece of the market.

Two different chemical companies, the German giant BASF and the DowDuPont spinoff Corteva Agriscience, both of which sell dicamba, are now offering new non-dicamba weedkillers.

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