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Dicamba victims eye ongoing damage

WEST FARGO, N.D. -- Farmers, agronomists and insurers in the region continue to wade through the troubled waters of soybean damage attributed to off-target drift damage from the herbicide dicamba.

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Soybeans hit with dicamba damage have "cupped" and "blistered" leaves, and reduced production from blossoms that die on top, and blossoms that produce two pods instead of three. Photo taken Aug. 14, 2017, near Harwood, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

WEST FARGO, N.D. - Farmers, agronomists and insurers in the region continue to wade through the troubled waters of soybean damage attributed to off-target drift damage from the herbicide dicamba.

In 2017 major manufacturers commercialized new formulations of herbicides that only go with soybean varieties that were genetically-modified to be resistant to it. The makers specified a package of adjuvants, nozzles and instructions to keep it from "volatilizing" or moving among fields once it is applied.

The new chemistries cost hundreds of millions of dollars for manufacturers like Monsanto and BASF to develop. They were widely anticipated as a new "tool in the toolbox" to help cope with the increasing weed resistance to glyphosate, which often goes under its initial product name Roundup.

The North Dakota Department of Agriculture has a survey system that includes about 130 "reports" but only 28 "complaints" that trigger an investigation. None have been "closed," according to Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.

As of Aug. 17, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture had received 214 complaints from 46 counties. The complaints that trigger investigations are not public until the investigations are complete. J.D. Farley, a South Dakota Department of Agriculture ag program specialist, said the department had 120 surveys filled out for dicamba damage in soybean areas east of the Missouri River, as of Aug. 16.

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The federal Farm Service Agency is not doing a survey, contrary to some news reports.

Rising concerns

Kevin Heiden, farms with his brother, Terry, and Kevin's son, Eric, based in West Fargo, N.D. Their land is in the Harwood and Argusville communities, raising wheat, corn and soybeans. The family counts six quarters of land affected by dicamba drift, and the new-growth leaves in August that should be providing extra pods are still cupping, or not developing.

"I didn't want to be the guinea pig this year," Heiden says, saying he was concerned about stories of drift problems in the southern states in 2016.

This year the Heidens raised about 2,600 acres of soybeans - none resistant to dicamba - but all resistant to Liberty herbicide. They say six of their quarters were affected with drift from neighbors - and one quarter was "hit by two different farmers," both of whom were careful to use the right nozzles and adjuvants, or carrying agents.

"They sprayed on the days that the wind was in their favor and it shouldn't have drifted onto adjacent crops," Kevin says. "It apparently moved sometime later, because it got three sides of the one quarter."

Kevin says some of the damage is "direct-drift" which means the conditions or application were such that the spray drifted in a traditional way, more immediately. Most acres were hit by "volatilization," or cloud-like movement, he says.

He talked to the neighbors, who sent insurance company representatives to look at it. "Hopefully, I'll be paid for the damage - if there's damage there," he says. "You won't know that until harvest." The Heidens invested in a sophisticated GPS-based yield monitor through Climate.com which will help track the damage and will have uses in future years.

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The Heidens reported the damage to the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, but stopped short of filing an official complaint because they don't want to get anybody in trouble.

Eric Heiden, 27, says he thinks he knows where the responsibility lies.

"I think Monsanto basically lied - that they knew more than they said" about volatilization, he says. "They did no third-party tests on the chemical as far as drift or movement."

Who would pay?

It's still seems unclear who, if anyone, will pay.

Losses aren't covered in victim's multi-peril crop insurance policies because it is a manmade loss. It isn't clear whether the neighbors' "property and casualty" policies will cover losses. Companies and courts must sort out damage for things like stress from heat, drought nutrient or micronutrient deficiencies, and even soil types. Officials say it's trickier than assessing damage from glyphosate which kills plants, rather than simply injuring them. Some privately speculate whether the situation seems ripe for a class-action lawsuit.

Goehring says some of the damage he's seen occurred despite applicators apparently following the label. Goehring is urging farmers to collect leaf samples and have them tested in laboratories. His own staff does that and investigates application complaints by studying weather records and interviewing people, but determining fault doesn't trigger compensation.

Goehring already has informed a governmental affairs official from Monsanto that he's considering his authorities and procedures for possibly adding state restrictions on the dicamba formulations for next year. He's thinking of lowering the wind speed to 10 to 12 mph from the current 15 mph maximum or confining applications to mornings and early afternoons.

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Farley, with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, says the department is deciding whether to renew state registration for the product in 2018, a decision that would be made before Dec. 31. The department typically registers product for two years but registered the new dicamba formulas for one year in part because of damages from off-label applications in the South in 2016.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
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