Sikeston, Missouri — In front of several greenhouse scaffolds, Steve Hamra gestured to a metal cart containing trays of seedlings for bell peppers, tomatoes and romaine lettuce. About 150 miles south of St. Louis on a 10-acre site, Hamra is growing produce hydroponically, or in water instead of soil, for about 400 schools, in Missouri and other states.
Hamra, president and founder of Amanzi Farms, hopes to expand its operations to Kansas City and Springfield. But he’s worried that his vegetables could be damaged by the herbicide dicamba, which some neighboring farms are using.
The chemical is sold under brand names, such as Monsanto’s XtendiMax, BASF’s Engenia and DuPont’s FeXapan. It’s very effective at killing pigweed, a tough plant that many soybean farmers grapple with. However, it’s hard to control, since it turns into a gas in hot weather and can drift miles off target, causing damage to sensitive crops.
“When I have 120,000 heads of lettuce, I’ve got over 5,000 tomato plants, 5,000 cucumber plants, 5,000 bell pepper plants, how am I affected by it when they start spraying it in the spring? That’s what I’m worried about,” Hamra said. “For me to service all the schools that are waiting on product, I want our kids to get a good lunch. I don’t want to jeopardize it because of one chemical company.”
Farmers have used dicamba since the 1960s. But it’s become more widely used because last year, Monsanto began selling soybean and cotton varieties that contain the dicamba-tolerant Xtend trait.
“In the past year, we had just incredible complaints throughout June, July and August,” said Kevin Bradley, a plant sciences professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture is investigating about 300 cases of dicamba-related complaints, most of them occurring in the southeast part of the state, where Amanzi Farms is located. However, Bradley said that the extent of damage is likely greater than what farmers are rep to the state. His research estimates that dicamba has injured more than 320,000 acres of soybeans in Missouri this year.
“I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years now and I was around when Roundup Ready was introduced,” Bradley said. “In my opinion, this is nothing like the introduction of any trait or technology as far as the scope and the significance of the injury that’s been observed across the U.S.”
Dicamba’s movements can be influenced by wind, temperature and the formulation’s volatility. Bradley said researchers and companies are debating how much any of these factors play a role in the damage the chemical has caused. Also, farmers historically have applied dicamba to their fields during the spring. Scientists are trying to understand how its growing use during the summer affects crops that are vulnerable to injury.
“I just don’t think we know enough yet to apply this safely,” Bradley said.
Meanwhile, the controversy over dicamba has created much tension and division between farmers, particularly between growers use dicamba-based herbicides and growers whose crops have been harmed by them.
Trey Wilson, whose farm is located near Amanzi Farms, said he saw substantial damage to his soybeans this year. Also, the heirloom tomatoes he planted in a new greenhouse had stopped growing for a month, “almost as if someone had pushed the ‘pause’ button.” He is considering taking legal action.
“I especially don’t want to sue my neighbors,” Wilson said. “I’m good friends with my neighbors, but the more this keeps going through...When it comes to suing Monsanto, I’m getting on board. I’m not there yet, but I’m moving that way.”
Wilson won’t know until how much dicamba affected his soybean yield until he’s finished with the harvest, but depending on the result, he may have to buy seeds from Monsanto to avoid losses next year.
“I am pro-Monsanto, pro-GMO, pro-big ag. I still don’t like this product,” Wilson said. “They’re forcing me to buy a product I don’t want. I don’t want to be around it. I don’t want to dirty my hands with it.”
Hamra expressed frustration that specialty crop farmers like him don’t have many options and have to brace themselves for potential damage.
“If I went to Monsanto and said I need 15,000 seeds that are dicamba-ready for lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, there’s nothing to fall back on,” Hamra said. “The things that we get our stuff killed out. We’re having to clean, transplant. It’s months before we’re back up and running.”
Wilson and Hamra think that dicamba should be banned. Arkansas and Missouri have placed temporary bans on the sale and use of dicamba-based products this summer, though Missouri’s was lifted after only a few days. While the Environmental Protection Agency has approved the chemical for use next year, but federal officials are considering limits on when farmers can spray it.
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