Their names almost make them sound like the villains in an old John Wayne movie: Palmer Amaranth, Tall Waterhemp, and Giant Ragweed.
In reality, they’re among the worst invaders in a farmer’s soybean fields—prolific weeds that rob our food crops of moisture and nutrients, depress our yields, and resist many forms of herbicide.
The good news is that now we have a tool to better control them. It comes in the form of a soybean that resists dicamba, a traditional crop-protection product. Last year, farmers planted about 25 million acres of dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton. This year, that figure is expected to be about 57 million acres, in a compelling testament to the power and effectiveness of this new technology.
As I drive around Iowa, I can tell which soybean fields take advantage of this product. They look clean and healthy. The ones that don’t use dicamba, by contrast, are showing major weed escapes. This summer, I’m using dicamba on soybeans for the first time—and so far, the results are excellent. Barring any complications, we’re going to have a strong crop.
So this is an outstanding option and farmers like me should have access to it.
Whether we’ll have it is another question. Everything rides on a looming decision from the Environmental Protection Agency. It still must grant permission for farmers to use dicamba on soybeans in 2019, in a licensing process called “re-registration.” Although the formal deadline is several months away, many observers expect action from the EPA in the coming weeks, so that soybean farmers have plenty of time to make planting decisions for next year.
Unfortunately, dicamba has become controversial. Its application is safe and has been used safely around the world since first available in 1967. But farmers must follow a few rules, such as making sure they use the correct nozzle tips on their sprayers, use drift reduction agents, create borders between fields, and avoid spraying crop protection products on breezy days. That’s because dicamba can drift away from targeted fields full of weeds and settle onto other fields, damaging legitimate crops. As you can imagine, this gets complicated if one farmer’s dicamba floats onto another farmer’s property.
The ultimate solution is simple: Read the instructions and follow the label. It’s like a lesson from grade school. Farmers who study the label and follow its rules will use dicamba well. Those who ignore the label will run the risk of causing a needless problem.
I’m saddened to say that too many farmers haven’t followed the instructions. By some estimates, more than a million acres of soybeans suffered some damage from dicamba last year. The problem was especially bad in a couple of states, such as Arkansas and Missouri. Because of this, a number of people are calling for the EPA to deny dicamba’s re-registration for 2019.
That would be a big mistake. This technology is a friend of sustainable agriculture, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land. It keeps consumer prices low and allows us to conserve our wild spaces. These are important economic and environmental benefits.
Moreover, we have to keep things in perspective. Although many complaints about dicamba are valid, plenty are bogus. Investigators have discovered that dicamba has become an all-purpose scapegoat, blamed for a variety of stresses on crops that in fact have other sources.
Let’s move forward, not backward. The EPA ought to re-register dicamba, preserving an option for farmers in their ongoing battle with weeds. Meantime, farmers must educate themselves on dicamba’s proper application. It shouldn’t be too hard: We’ve been using dicamba for decades on corn. So we’ve had a long and positive experience with this particular product. We just need to adjust to a few new rules for soybeans.
Many of dicamba’s rewards are obvious. One of them is less so: It improves communications between farmers. In my area, at least, we’re talking more often, neighbor to neighbor, about our planting choices. We discuss who is using dicamba and where, trading information about best practices, and so on. We’re becoming better farmers and neighbors.
Dicamba is a worthy product and it has great value. We’re good at using it. We’re not perfect, but over time we’ll become more perfect.
We just need the EPA to let us keep on using it.
About the author: Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm. He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member for the Global Farmer Network. www.globalfarmernetwork.org