As the EPA extends use of the controversial herbicide for two more years, farmers continue to take sides, and the effects on rural America are snowballing.
John and Lisa Zuhlke used to get along well with their neighbor of 10 years. Before they began raising more than 350 varieties of heirloom vegetables and honey on their five-acre operation in Aurora, South Dakota, two years ago, they maintained an amicable relationship with the soybean grower next door. He would scoop snow from their driveway and road and let them hunt his land for dove geese, says John Zuhlke.
Dicamba—the controversial weed killer—upended their relationship.
In August 2017, the leaves on Zuhlke’s vegetable crops started looking deformed, curling up around the edges, or cupping. “It was weird to me. I’d never seen anything like it,” he says. When he asked his neighbor about it, he was told the neighbor had sprayed Engenia, one of three “low volatility” dicamba products that have been approved to spray on fields of dicamba-resistant soybeans after the seedlings have emerged.
Zuhlke lost over $11,000 worth of crops that summer, and had to let over 300 tomato plants rot in the field. Offered no apology, he made a claim on his neighbor’s liability insurance. But the insurance company refused to pay, blaming the product. And while the neighboring farmer had been careful when spraying in the past, that has changed. “Now he hates us,” says a frustrated Zuhlke, who has reported pesticide damage to the state’s department of agriculture three times in two years.
This year, the leaves on Zuhlke’s black walnut and cherry trees even curled up. Lab results he posted on Twitter indicated a cocktail of pesticides: dicamba, glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup), and 2,4-D. As far as he could tell, however, “no one within a half of a mile sprayed,” he says.
Dicamba was first registered in the U.S. in 1967. Known to be volatile, becoming vapor at high temperatures, it was typically only used to clear fields of weeds before planting in late fall or early winter—at times when it would do little damage to nearby plants and didn’t impact growing crops. The new formulations, introduced by Monsanto (now Bayer), Dupont, and BASF in 2016 and 2017, claimed to lower dicamba’s volatility, and therefore its drift potential, in warm spring and summer weather. But the herbicides have proved so problematic for neighboring farms that both Arkansas and Missouri placed temporary bans on them in 2017.
Independent researchers were not allowed to test the products’ volatility before they were registered, and many are still struggling to get a clear picture of how it moves and under which conditions it volatilizes. Many pesticide experts shared a common a sense of dread when dicamba was first registered for use on soybeans and cotton—but the ensuing damage exceeded their fears. “Even the most pessimistic pesticide specialist was shocked by the amount of off-target movement and damage in 2017,” says Andrew Thostenson, a pesticide specialist at North Dakota State University Extension Service in Fargo.
On Halloween evening, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a long-awaited decision reauthorizing dicamba’s registration for two more years, with additional restrictions to the already-complicated label. And while some of those restrictions may help some farmers avoid harming their neighbors’ crops, it will likely continue to sour more rural relationships in the years ahead.