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Dicamba Deadline Nears For Soybean Farmers In Uncertain June

Brad Van Osdel

South Dakota soybean farmers have a deadline.

In five days they will not be able to use one of the most popular herbicides on their fields.

For most of the month of June, they were unsure whether they could use it at all.

That’s because of a federal court ruling that pulled it from the shelves during the middle of spraying season.

Hal Clemensen is rushing to treat his soybeans with dicamba before next week’s deadline. Clemensen has been farming for 37 years and farms corn and soybeans near Conde, which is south and east of Aberdeen.

Clemensen says he focuses dicamba on parts of his fields that have kochia weeds. It can grow fast--up to five feet tall--and it spreads. Just one plant puts out 14,000 seeds.

“This is probably the best remedy to handle kochia weeds,” Clemensen says.

Earlier this month Clemensen didn’t know if he could use dicamba. In early June, the 9th circuit court of appeals overturned an Environmental Protection Agency regulation on three dicamba products—XtendiMax, Engenia and FeXapan.

“This is pulling the rug out from underneath us halfway through the spraying season,” he added.

So Clemensen waited.

“We were hoping—talking to our agronomists and saying ‘What do we do here?’ And they’re saying, ‘Well, I don’t know,'" Clemensen says. "Nobody had answers for us. And so, people sat on the sidelines and mainly didn’t spray.”

In some fields, the weeds took off.

While the court ruling created limits on dicamba use, since then the EPA says farmers could spray the dicamba they already have on hand. But in South Dakota, they need to spray before July 1st.

Dicamba has been around for more than fifty years. It’s an effective weed killer, but it also can kill other plants. If a farmer sprays dicamba on a windy day, or when the liquid spray vaporizes in hot weather, the chemical can kill some non-targeted plants. Unintended crop damage from dicamba has led to multiple court cases.

In 2015, the USDA approved Bayer’s dicamba resistant soybean and cotton seeds. Three specialized types of dicamba herbicides, for those special seeds, were not approved until two years later.

Nathan Donley is a Senior Scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. That group joined several others in suing the EPA over the approval of those dicamba products.

Donley says the USDA put the cart before the horse.

“What we’ve seen since then is an enormous increase in dicamba use across the Midwest and the South,” Donley says. “And this is causing widespread environmental damage.”

Donley says it can also drive down the livelihood of any farmer who does not use Bayer’s genetically engineered crops.

“There’s really been no greater example of wide-spread damage done by pesticides that I can ever think of.”

The USDA says in 2018, 44 percent of South Dakota’s soybean acres were planted with dicamba-tolerant seeds. That’s about 2.4 million acres.  

Two million of those acres were sprayed with a dicamba herbicide.

Some soybean fields were damaged by unintentional dicamba drift—six percent of soybean fields in the state showed that kind of damage.

The EPA will reevaluate its regulation on dicamba again later this year to determine if and how the chemical gets used next year.  Donley says he suspects the EPA will re-approve dicamba for herbicide use.

“And if, for somehow, a new approval comes in place it’s going to be even more restrictive than the label is this year,” Donley says. “So, it’s setting up farmers to use it illegally, because the label is so restrictive you can’t even follow it.”

Some say the future of dicamba is uncertain. Kevin Scott is South Dakota’s representative to the American Soybean Association. He says if the EPA limits it’s use… that will hurt South Dakota farmers.

“I would love to have a safer product than dicamba to use, that’s a given,” Scott says. “We need something that works on the weed species we have, so if they can come out with something new—new chemistry or whatever, that would be fantastic. We’d be all for it. Currently, dicamba is a wonderful product for what it does. It’s just hard to use correctly.”

Farmer Hal Clemenson says if farmers lose dicamba, chemical costs would escalate, cutting into a farmer’s profit.

“You fight the weather a lot, you fight mother nature, you fight prices,” Clemenson says. “It’s hard when you have a judge in California that makes a decision—he’s probably never been to South Dakota, I don’t know that, but—and he’s making a decision that affects all of us in agriculture.”

Meanwhile, South Dakota’s soybean farmers are rushing to spray dicamba before the state cutoff date.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.