Dicamba damaged elm tree

Have you noticed all the poorly leafed and even dead elm and Russian olive trees dotting the countryside? Have you noticed any strangely shaped growth tips or cupped and crinkled leaves in your garden? This is because of dicamba and 2,4-D. It's not a matter of drift while they are being sprayed. It's because these chemicals are volatile, like alcohol, and evaporate at room temperature. There is a cloud of dicamba over the entire region. Levels are higher closer to fields, but I see dicamba damaged vegetation in the middle of town in Aberdeen. In 2019, 25 million pounds of dicamba were applied to 100 million acres in a 34-state area, and that figure has only grown. The University of Missouri proved in 2019 that dicamba is detectable in the atmosphere 72 hours after application according to the label directions, and probably for longer, but they stopped testing after three days. It continuously evaporates off of the fields after they've been sprayed. (https://ipm.missouri.edu/IPCM/2019/4/dicamba/)

My name is John Batteen. My family farms in Faulk and Edmunds counties, and I am working on diversifying into fruit. I am in the early testing phases with about 1/3 of an acre, with strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, currants, elderberries, cherries, and grapes. I was particularly excited about the grapes. I worked on several fruit farms in Minnesota learning the trade before I came here to start my own. I brought with me several brand new varieties of grapes being developed by a breeder in Minnesota. Unfortunately, grapes are much like sunflowers, in that they are highly sensitive to Group 4 herbicides which include dicamba and 2,4-D. My grapes have had a very hard time getting established, they drop their fruit every year, and this past winter I lost grapes that are hardy to -50 to winterkill.

I have observed damage to sensitive vegetation in each of the last five years since dicamba has been approved. What I have noticed is that different species and even different individuals within the same species have highly variable responses. Some species like raspberries, strawberries, plums, cherries, maples, and cottonwoods seem completely unaffected. Some species like elderberries, sunflowers, jerusalem artichokes, and tomatoes will show deformed growth but keep growing fine. Other species, like grapes, elms, and Russian olives, stop their growth completely once a sufficient dose has accumulated. I have observed all three of these plants look exactly the same from mid-June to leaf drop in fall. Moving from observation to hypothesis, I suspect that the ability of these plants to store energy for the following season is diminished when they're paralyzed. Year after year of only using energy to leaf out every spring and not saving any during the summer, they eventually run out and don't come back the next spring.

When I reported my drift damage to the SDDA in 2019, they came out to look and take samples. They needed way more leaf material than I thought to take samples, and that would not have been good for my already damaged grapes, so we took samples from my elm trees instead. They needed samples from both damaged and undamaged vegetation. There were two elm trees right next to each other, one with cupped and crinkled leaves, one that looked fine, so we used them. They both tested positive for dicamba and 2,4-D at roughly the same levels. The dose is threshold and individuals of the same species can have different tolerances just as a result of the genetic lottery. That's why not all of the trees are dead in the shelter belt rows. This is how herbicide resistance evolves.

To make this abundantly clear, I am not blaming the farmers. The seed and chemical companies sold these products knowing full well what would happen, and then blamed it on the applicators. These products are defective from the outset, and farmers are being blamed for the chemical companies' mistakes. This was made abundantly clear in the internal emails from BASF that were released as part of the discovery process in the Bill Bader peach farm lawsuit, in which Bill Bader was awarded $265 million dollars in damages. "The one thing most acres of beans have in common is dicamba damage. There must be a huge cloud of dicamba blanketing the Missouri Bootheel. That ticking time bomb finally exploded! The scope of damage is on a massive scale and fingers are pointing in all directions from grower to grower. It will be interesting to see how all the complaints are handled." -Jason Roberts, Innovation Specialist Report, Missouri Bootheel, July 4, 2016, BASF. Also, the fact that they insisted it was the applicators at fault, but yet added many more restrictions and required spray adjuvants to the label for the 2021 reapproval, is very telling. The fact that Corteva exited the dicamba market this season out of concerns for future liability is also very telling.

How did we end up here? What does this mean for the future of farming in our region?

Scientists have discovered many different modes of action for herbicides, classified into numbered groups. For example, as dicamba and 2,4-D are Group 4, glyphosate is Group 9, and glufosinate is Group 10. Within most of these groups are several different chemical compounds that work with the same mode of action. The seed companies had a lot of choices when deciding what chemical to engineer crops to resist. But, these other choices also had problems. Too toxic to other forms of life to spray en masse, to expensive to be economical, not enough residual action, an inability to engineer resistance.

They knew what was going to happen with dicamba products before they released them, and this is plainly stated in the internal emails from the Bill Bader lawsuit. If they had better options, we would be using them by now. We are at the end of the road for over-the-top application of herbicides as a weed control method in row crop agriculture. Just as overuse of antibiotics has now resulted in several different antibiotic-resistant diseases that now require stronger and more toxic antibiotics to treat, so too have weeds evolved resistance to all of our herbicides. Dicamba resistant weeds are already showing up. They will evolve resistance to whatever other new chemicals we start spraying within a few years. Kochia, waterhemp, palmer amaranth, among others, have a lot of variability within their gene pool and with that the ability to evolve rapidly to changing conditions.

The seed and chemical companies might be able to squeak one or two more resistant traits out but they'll only buy us so much time. They don't care. They've already made their money off of it, and they're not going to be the ones left holding the bag at the end. We are. If I put on my tinfoil hat, I might speculate that dicamba really is the last one, they know it, they're cashing in as much as they can right now, and will just file bankruptcy and not have to pay anything out when they finally do get sued into submission over the dicamba damage. It will be interesting to see what actually ends up happening.

We're going to have to figure out something else for weed control. We can't go back to tillage, Gunsmoke Farms proved that this year. Even ignoring the collateral damage, dicamba isn't going to work much longer. Consumers are interested in foods with less chemicals used, so this may be an opportunity in disguise. There are research groups working on robots using cameras and AI to identify weeds, and then target spraying them. That would certainly save a lot of chemical and probably cut down a lot on the off-target damage from dicamba, but will still eventually run into herbicide resistance issues. It could potentially be used on non-herbicide resistant crops, and with an appropriate herbicide for tough weeds, if the spraying was targeted enough. That could buy a lot of time. There are also similar robots being developed that use lasers to kill weeds. That seems promising. A plant can't evolve resistance to lasers.

I don't have any easy answers here. And I'm not just complaining because I'm being damaged by dicamba. I benefit substantially from conventional row crop agriculture and the torch will be passed to me one day. This is my problem too. We have some of the world's best computer scientists and agriculturalists at Madison and Brookings. Maybe we could ask our universities to take a look at the potential of robots? I don't know. But we definitely have a problem on our hands. If you have any ideas, or want to tell me how stupid and wrong I am, my email address is john@batteen.com.

John Batteen
Cresbard, South Dakota
June 16th, 2021