Nebraska won’t go as far as other states and ban or limit use of a controversial weedkiller this year.
But farmers here will have to follow new federal restrictions and have special training, or hire someone who has had it, if they want to use the herbicide dicamba to control weeds in soybean fields.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is closely watching how American farmers use dicamba during the 2018 growing season. If problems persist, the agency could ban certain forms of its use in the future — something farmers hope to avoid in their ongoing battle with weeds.
The chemical isn’t new, but its use became a big problem for farmers in the South and Midwest last year. New technology allowed farmers to spray dicamba directly onto growing soybean and cotton plants that have been genetically engineered to withstand it.
The problem is, the chemical tends to evaporate and drift under certain weather conditions, damaging nonresistant soybeans and other crops in neighboring fields, as well as gardens and trees.
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture has documented or investigated nearly 100 complaints from the 2017 season, Director Steve Wellman said Friday. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension office said its educators received nearly 350 complaints in 2017.
The volume of complaints was much higher in some other states. An EPA herbicide official called the number unacceptably high.
The EPA and the three companies that sell dicamba for use on growing crops — Monsanto, BASF and DuPont — agreed last fall on measures to minimize damage, including allowing only people with special training to use the chemical.
The companies are the targets of lawsuits making damage claims over the product.
In a December letter to customers, Monsanto Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley said he expects fewer problems this year with more training. Last year’s problems were the result of operator error and the use of older, more volatile formulations of the chemical, he said.
In addition to the training, the EPA is also requiring farmers to keep records on dicamba application and to apply the chemical at only certain times of day and on days that are not windy.
If problems continue, the EPA may not allow dicamba on growing crops after this year.
That would be a blow to the seed companies and to farmers, who say they need dicamba because some weeds have evolved to tolerate another popular herbicide, glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand weedkiller.
Effective herbicides help farmers limit how much they till their soil, helping prevent erosion and damage to soil and water quality, said Robert Klein, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension crops expert who is working on the dicamba training effort.
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture, UNL Extension and the companies that sell the dicamba-resistant crops are working together to provide the training required by the EPA.
As of Friday, nearly 1,000 Nebraska farmers and professional applicators had completed the free training this month, in person or online.
Nebraska was the seventh-biggest state for soybean acres in 2017, with farmers planting 5.7 million acres, a crop worth more than $3 billion. Iowa was second with 10 million acres.
The problems seen in 2017 could multiply this summer if restrictions to control the chemical aren’t enough.
That’s because more Nebraska farmers intend to plant dicamba-resistant soybeans this year, a UNL Extension survey found, meaning that there probably will be more of the weedkiller applied.
Even a farmer using the chemical according to label instructions could inadvertently damage a neighbor’s crops if the wind shifted the next day, Klein said.
A survey of 312 farmers across 60 Nebraska counties found that in 2017 they planted 19 percent of their soybean acres with a particular brand of dicamba-tolerant soybeans, Monsanto’s Xtend varieties. This year those farmers anticipate planting 52 percent of their soybean acres with Xtend soybeans.
Saunders County farmer Dennis Fujan will plant all his soybean acres with dicamba-resistant soybeans this year, after using them for about half his crop last year.
Fujan, chairman of the Nebraska Soybean Association, said the weedkiller did its job and he didn’t have problems with drift. But he said the EPA restrictions are “probably necessary.”
“You hate to take any chances,” he said. “I don’t want to cause any trouble for my neighbors and I don’t want any trouble myself.”
Still, Fujan agreed with the State Department of Agriculture that further restrictions aren’t necessary in Nebraska.
Department Director Wellman, himself a soybean farmer, said the department agrees with the EPA’s restrictions but also said further restrictions aren’t necessary here. He said that the weedkiller is an important tool for farmers and that the new training requirements and use restrictions satisfy Nebraska’s requirements.
Arkansas banned use of dicamba on growing crops from mid-April through October. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture said dicamba couldn’t be used after June 20 or if air temperatures are above 85 degrees.
Illinois and Iowa have not placed their own restrictions on the chemical.
Education is more useful than a ban, Fujan said.
“It doesn’t matter what the law says. You’ve still got to make sure people are informed and then people have to be trusted,” Fujan said.
“If they don’t follow these restrictions and new guidelines, this herbicide is going to be gone. It’ll be taken off the market.”