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Tainted wheat woes vex growers

“When the farmer sprayed it, it made the wheat tainted and therefore it was not eligible for an LDP,” said Oby Easley, county executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Coahoma County, Miss.

In addition, under current USDA rules, once a commodity loses its eligibility, it cannot be made eligible again. That means that even if FMC’s Fury pesticide is approved for wheat, the tainted crop would still not be eligible for government benefits.

“That’s what USDA is saying right now,” Easley said. Just to be sure that farmers are covered in case of an exemption to the rule, “we are getting all of the farmers to request an LDP prior to signing a contract with FMC (which has agreed to purchase the tainted wheat), so they could get it if something changed. But (any exemption) is just wishful thinking on our part.”

The issue involves 26,000 acres of wheat in Arkansas and Mississippi. During an armyworm infestation in late April, the fields were treated with Fury, a pesticide not labeled for use on the crop. Farmers allege that they were either told that the application was legal or that a label for use on wheat was forthcoming.

News of the spraying reached state plant boards whose subsequent investigation identified 6,000 Arkansas acres and 20,000 Mississippi acres affected by illegal sprays. The growers were told that they could not market the wheat.

In late June, FMC agreed to buy farmers’ Fury-sprayed wheat at the county loan price. A “Fury logistics team” was formed to obtain contracts from growers and instituted a deadline for turning in the contracts.

But several growers say they feel “backed into a corner” by the offer, as well as the short deadlines imposed by FMC. They also believe that FMC should compensate them fully for the loss, i.e., the county loan price plus any LDP they may have received.

One of those wheat producers, Steve Brunson, who farms in Sunflower County, Miss., says his county loan price is around $2.67. “The crop that we’ve harvested with loan and LDP could have ended up around $2.90 to $3.”

Because Brunson had harvested his wheat prior to FMC’s offer, he had to make arrangements to truck the wheat to a location where its identity could be preserved and then had to move the wheat again to a bin designated by FMC.

“At this point, I’ve got storage and 30 cents per bushel trucking in it to please the Fury logistics people. That’s a 60-75 cent hit and the transportation reimbursement they’re offering is not appealing to a lot of people.”

While farmers, dealers and company representatives are equally responsible for making sure that products are not illegally applied on crop fields, the farmers feel like they’re being punished for doing something most farmers do, trust their advisors.

“In my case, my dealer rep called me when I was at a soccer game and said we’re spraying all the wheat around you, we need to spray your wheat today," said Brunson. "So I said, ‘Sure, good-bye.’ I wasn’t told ahead of time that this was a risk.

“Granted everybody should have looked at labels. I should have probably said no, don’t spray my wheat until I can come down there and look at a label. But in practice, that’s not the way that it’s done.”

Brunson and several other farmers did not turn in their contracts under FMC’s late June deadline. “It’s still my wheat,” he said. “I’m still at market risk. I need to sell it. I need the cash flow this time of the year. But I can’t afford to sell it and come up $8,000 to $10,000 short.”

FMC’s director of public affairs, Jeff Jacoby, said two things could happen to Fury-sprayed wheat being stored by company. “One, we get approval for Fury on wheat and cereal grains. That package has been pending since August, 2000. Should we get that tolerance and any wheat stored is below that, then it should be suitable for sale.

“Secondly, should FDA find that there are no residues in the wheat, we could sell it somewhere down the road.”

At this time, those two options are apparently not available for producers, according to Jacoby. “The EPA and FDA wanted one entity to take care of this entire process. They want identity preservation, isolation and control. FMC was (designated as) the one to have that control to deal with this particular wheat.”

When asked if growers should also be compensated for the loss of an LDP due to the spraying, Jacoby said, “The LDP issue is between the farmers and USDA.”

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