dicamba-damaged soybeans
EDUCATE? Registrants have argued since 2017 that more education would make dicamba application more successful. University of Illinois’ Aaron Hager disagrees: “You can’t educate volatility out of existence.”

Dicamba: What does success look like in 2020?

Drift complaints skyrocketed again in 2019. Here’s what IDOA is considering, and what it means for Illinois ag.

Here’s what we know in Illinois in September 2019: The Illinois Department of Agriculture had received 937 total herbicide complaints as of Sept. 13. Of those, 708 were related to dicamba.

In 2018: 330 dicamba-related complaints. In 2017: 246 dicamba-related complaints. Before in-season dicamba, from 1989 to 2016, total ag and non-ag complaints averaged about a hundred a year.

Clearly, those numbers are going the wrong way. And 937 complaints is more than any other state, which is a problem for the leading soybean-producing state in the nation — enough so that IDOA convened a group of stakeholders for a series of meetings this month, which began this week. The goal: Figure out what to do in 2020. According to Doug Owens, IDOA bureau chief of environmental programs, “Everything’s on the table.”

You may recall in early 2019 that IDOA Director John Sullivan set a June 30 cutoff date for in-season dicamba application. This was the first time IDOA, under new leadership, sought restrictions on top of the federal EPA label. By mid-June, the department eyeballed the historically delayed planting season and extended the cutoff to July 15.

For his part, Sullivan has been clear about how he wanted the cutoff date to work, telling Prairie Farmer back in February: “If we go into 2019 and see that number continue at that level, my concern is there will be an unbelievable amount of pressure to take dicamba off the market. We don’t want that to happen. If those numbers don’t come down, we may all be sitting in front of a committee asking us to justify what we’re doing.”

If you sucked in your breath there, you’re not alone. Because he’s right. Sullivan spent 14 years in the Illinois Senate. He knows how these things work. We sprayed more than 5 million acres of soybeans with dicamba this year, and most of it within a narrow window during a July heatwave. Those are not conditions that lead to success.

Swinging door

So what happens in 2020? On one end of the pendulum is no change from federal labels. On the other end is no use. Neither option is likely, so in between lies a vast range of possibilities, including preemergence use only to a June 30 cutoff.

Among the farm organizations and ag industry members at this week’s stakeholder meeting was Aaron Hager, University of Illinois weed scientist. Farm organizations including Illinois Farm Bureau, IL Corn and Illinois Soybean were asked to formulate a position with their leadership and report back to Sullivan. The Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association supports a June 15 cutoff. Syngenta, Corteva and BASF say they will support whatever IDOA decides. Bayer told IDOA it wouldn’t support a cutoff date.

Hager’s clear on how this all works. “If the purpose of a cutoff date is to stem off-target movement and volatility, that’s temperature-dependent,” he says. “It stands to reason if you set the date earlier, more than likely you’ll have greater success.”

It’s also clear more education didn’t help — particularly when the additional test that sprayer operators were required to take barely touched on dicamba. And it’s clear that complaints to IDOA aren’t just coming from a bunch of “Monsanto haters.” The 708 dicamba complaints came from 488 unique complainants, only 42 of which were repeats from last year.

Picture of success

How will we define success in 2020? Would 250 complaints be success? Zero complaints? Owens won’t peg a number but says fewer complaints would be a success, because that means occurrence of off-target pesticides is down.

Recall that back in 2016, U.S. EPA said it wouldn’t renew the dicamba license if off-target movement and damage were “excessive.” Is an increase of more than 800 dicamba complaints excessive? If not, what is? Honest question.

Illinois farmers want the technology. Obviously. They’re too independent to ever go 100% dicamba, so we’ve dealt with cupped leaves on Liberty beans and non-GMO beans. And on trees and vineyards and orchards and more. Even non-dicamba complaints are more than twice the pre-2016 complaint average, at 229 compared to 100. That means more homeowners and specialty growers are paying attention, and that attention isn’t favorable.

Take a look around, friends. Illinois is becoming the California of the Midwest. Our laws lean further left, and with them, our culture. We’ll all be able to smoke pot in three months, for heaven’s sake. If you think there aren’t folks already concerned with the percentage of 5 million acres of dicamba that volatilizes and floats around in the air they breathe, you’re fooling yourself. Turn on the television and see how glyphosate lawsuits appear in every third commercial.

It’s a precarious position to say we’re Illinois ag and we can do whatever we want — so forget your gardens and trees and vineyards and backyards. If we really want success in 2020, we have to present a better picture. One that shows we’re the responsible citizens we claim to be.

And in 2020, that means reducing the odds of hurting someone else.

Comments? Email holly.spangler@farmprogress.com.

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