The dicamba dilemma

Although the controversy over dicamba — a herbicide used to control destructive weeds — is fairly new, the product isn’t. It’s been used by farmers for almost 50 years, and was historically applied to minimize stubborn broad-leaf interlopers. Today, use of dicamba — some of it illegal —- is decreasing crop yields, and the cost can be high, especially with late-season application.

Drift claims mount

Dicamba works like a dream on broad-leaf weeds, but it doesn’t always stay put. In hot weather, it forms a gas that can drift for miles, hence the phrase “dicamba drift.” Unmodified soybeans — because they haven’t been engineered to fight the effects of dicamba — are especially vulnerable to dicamba drift, and farmers are seeing their soybean crops wither before their eyes, sending liability claims soaring.

“Insurance carriers are seeing an unprecedented spike in dicamba-based crop claims. It’s a challenge, for everyone, to get fields inspected,” said Vicky Hartgers, a Grinnell Mutual claims manager.

 “We also saw a spike when glyphosate-resistant crops first popped up,” said Grinnell Mutual’s Assistant Vice President of Claims Ron Nott. “But things improved when farmers started communicating with their neighbors.”

Last year, a version of dicamba that’s supposed to be less volatile than previous formulations was approved for on-crop use. Despite this, dicamba damage complaints continue to pile up. This isn’t a surprise to Kevin Bradley, plant sciences professor at the University of Missouri, who says the combination of an approved formula and new dicamba-resistant crops is a predictable contributor to the increased use of the herbicide.

“It’s concerning but not a surprise,” Bradley said in a June 25th interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We knew that the acreage that gets sprayed with that dicamba product would be dramatically more than it was last year.”

Other factors also could also be at play. Though spraying older formulations is illegal, it appears many farmers around the country have done just that to combat weeds that have developed resistance to other herbicides. Some scientists also believe it’s possible that the new formulation carries the same risks as previous ones.

Whatever the reason, dicamba drift impact has been damaging to non-resistant crops. Puckered leaves, buckled pods, and stunted growth have affected farms nationwide, resulting in a large influx of lawsuits.

What can be done?

Cost estimates of dicamba drift damage continue to rise, and it’s important to note that federal crop insurance only covers weather-related peril, like flooding or drought, not chemical-related issues. Liability insurance may cover yield loss, but the challenge is pinpointing the dicamba source when drift occurs.

In the meantime, farmers have been forced to choose between using the dicamba-resistant products or remaining vulnerable to drift — a quandary that’s left the agricultural world mired in controversy.

Farm claims managers Hartgers and Ryan O’Roake say there are some simple ways to make a bad situation better. Farmers and applicators need to be aware of weather and wind speeds and to be talking to their neighbors about what’s been planted and what chemicals are being used. And those who use dicamba need to read and follow label guidelines prior to application.

“Open communication is the key to strong partnerships between farmers, neighbors, applicators, and insurance agents,” O’Roake said. “Timely reporting of damage allows for earlier field inspections and presents more opportunities for mindful evaluations.”