Brent Bean, Ph.D., director of agronomy for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, said traditionally, dicamba was used on grass crops like wheat, corn and sorghum to combat broadleaf weeds which notoriously, and almost inevitably, find themselves intertwined with row crops.
“These chemistries have been around for close to 60 years,” Bean said. “As seed technology advances, we see dicamba being used in broader applications.”
In 2015, Monsanto released seed hybrids tolerant to dicamba, and these hybridized lines quickly gained popularity. By 2017, dicamba-tolerant soybeans were planted across 25 million acres accounting for a quarter of our nation’s soybeans—this trend of popularity has been similar in other agronomic crops, as well.
As dicamba use increased, so did farmer complaints of dicamba-related crop injury. Arkansas, Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri and Minnesota reported 2.5 million dicamba-damaged acres and close to 2,000 official investigations were conducted, according to the University of Missouri.
While these statistics are specific to soybeans primarily in the Midwest, these issues are not isolated solely to one crop. In West Texas, the dicamba battle has been centered around dicamba-tolerant cotton and increasingly popular Texas vineyards. Dicamba dramatically impacts a grape producer’s ability to produce the quality products they were accustomed to prior to dicamba-tolerant cotton’s introduction.
While 2017 data certainly helps add context to the issue, the agriculture industry has made progress to mitigate the effects of dicamba drift.
Peter Dotray, Ph.D., Rockwell chair of weed science Texas Tech University, said efforts are in place by university agronomists and the agricultural chemical industry to provide information regarding safe application of dicamba chemistries. Trainings for farmers and applicators are mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Department of Agriculture and required before using approved dicamba chemistries on herbicide-tolerant seed varieties.
“These trainings … emphasize the importance of on-target application,” Dotray said. “They highlight the label restrictions so these technologies can be used safely and responsibly.”
Dotray said the agriculture industry has made great strides in improving on-target application by surveying a variety of environmental factors and integrating technology into their operation. He said farmers have tools at their disposal to protect their personal operation’s bottom line, as well as their neighbor’s.
By tracking environmental factors like wind speed and direction, temperature inversions, time of day, chemical buffers, nozzle selection and boom height coupled with consideration for surrounding crops can help drastically decrease the likelihood of damage to their neighbor’s operations.
“It is my belief that at the end of the day, farmers have their neighbor’s best interest at heart,” Dotray said. “I sincerely believe farmers want to and are trying to do the right thing.”
(Dicamba-tolerant) Cotton Is King
Kirk Martin is a fifth-generation farmer from Brownfield, Texas. His roots run deep in cotton farming and West Texas agriculture. Like the generations before him, he was brought up to respect the land and his fellow West Texans.
Martin, his brother and dad, farm close to 10,000 acres of mostly peanuts, wheat and dicamba-tolerant cotton. Farming in the middle of an arid climate has its issues, and the Martin family has experienced plenty of extreme drought, irregular weather patterns and water scarcity.
When weed pressure is coupled with climate challenges, farmers must protect their bottom lines. Martin said one way of doing so is by treating row crops with approved herbicides systems. Dicamba and tolerant hybrids play an important role in his farm’s longevity and sustainability by allowing him to control unruly weeds and maintain projected cotton yields.
“[Dicamba] is just another tool in our belt,” Martin said. “It’s one of the few herbicides that still work for [our operation].”
However integral to his operation, Martin recognizes the associated risks of applying dicamba to his cotton. With the Texas wine industry contributing $13 billion to the state’s economy, Martin said he knows cotton farmers have a responsibility to protect and respect their specialty crop neighbors in the same way he wants to be protected and respected.
Martin took this initiative to heart when he invested in a second sprayer for his operation. Additional equipment allows his family to cover more ground in less time when conditions are ideal to spray dicamba. He said he is also conscientious of the other growing crops in his area— whether that be his own peanut crop or the vineyards slowly creeping into what has traditionally been Cotton Country.
“We do our best to avoid mistakes,” Martin said. “You have to put yourself in [grape producers] shoes and treat them the way you would like to be treated.”
A Budding Industry
In 2015, Bolen Vineyards co-owner, Rowdy Bolen, had grape vines reaching 6 feet in length. He said his vineyard was so lush and green it could have been mistaken as a hedge to theuntrained eye. In 2020, his vines averaged just 2 feet in length and appeared visibly stunted. He said his family’s vineyard had been hit, and hit hard, by chemical drift.
“In 2018, dicamba damage was noticeable in our vineyard, and 2019 was pretty bad, too,” Bolen said. “In 2020, [our vineyard] was hit three separate times by dicamba drift.”
A vineyard is an expensive, long-term investment in comparison to other agricultural pursuits. Bolen said one acre of winemaking grapes can cost upwards of $10,000 and take three to five years for a return on investment. Managing a vineyard is a time-intensive and largely un- mechanized endeavor. Growing grapes is hard enough as is without the added stress of protecting your crop from one of the most powerful herbicides commercially available to farmers.
Bolen acknowledges that cotton is king in this part of the state but said he has the same right to production as his neighbors.
“I want everyone to realize that we don’t farm in glass boxes,” Bolen said. “What other farmers decide to do can affect my vineyard substantially.”
Bolen said when you put boots in the dirt and analyze the stunted vines and the shrunken, crumpled grape leaves, it is evident there is a real problem plaguing the Texas wine industry. He said it is up to each farmer, regardless of the crops they are raising, to take a vested interest in the success and wellbeing of Texas agriculture holistically.
“We want to be successful and see other farmers succeed with the crops they grow,” Bolen said. “You do, genuinely, want to love thy neighbor.”