Growing Concern: Thousands of farms across U.S. damaged by ‘dicamba drift’ that devastates crops

Critics call for ban on product some farmers consider ‘vital’ to their livelihoods
Critics want a ban on drift-prone herbicide, but some farmers consider it ‘vital’ to their livelihoods. Reporter Joce Sterman and Photojournalist Scotty Smith
Published: Aug. 1, 2022 at 2:46 PM CDT
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COBDEN, Ill. (InvestigateTV) – There’s a flourishing divide among farmers across the country, with the choice by some to use a powerful weed killer creating devastating consequences for others.

Use of a chemical called dicamba has devastated crops it wasn’t even sprayed on. Under certain conditions the chemical has the ability to drift miles from where it’s sprayed, creating massive problems on farms from coast to coast.

While farmers who use it say it’s vital to their livelihoods, complaints about dicamba damage continue stacking up nationwide, and there’s growing concern about the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to continually re-approve the product.

‘We didn’t know what it was’

In the early harvest season at Flamm Orchards in southern Illinois, pickers work through the blistering heat of a summer morning, choosing the first peaches deemed ripe enough for sale. It’s a ritual Jeff Flamm’s family has been carrying out every year since their farm was founded back in 1888.

“It is home. You’ve got to live it and you’ve got to believe in it, or you’re not going to make it,” Flamm said.

Jeff Flamm, a peach and apple farmer, showcases the fruit grown on his family's orchard in...
Jeff Flamm, a peach and apple farmer, showcases the fruit grown on his family's orchard in southern Illinois(Joce Sterman, InvestigateTV)

But Flamm, a fifth-generation farmer, said he is now fearing for the future. In the last four years, he said the hundreds of acres of fruit trees farmed by his family have been threatened.

At first, it was a mystery, with damage popping up on fruit trees spaced throughout their sprawling property.

“Never seen anything like that,” Flamm said. “We had several people come and look, and everyone had the same conclusion.”

He said agriculture experts, environmentalists and even state officials all agreed the damage was likely caused by dicamba, an herbicide that kills weeds other weed-killer can’t. It’s been around for decades but has been more widely used since 2016 when the EPA cleared the way for dicamba to be sprayed over the top of certain crops.

Those crops have been genetically engineered to withstand the chemical and many corn, cotton and soy growers now rely on dicamba to control resistant weeds that threaten their yield. The problem is, Flamm doesn’t use it and said he never has.

He’s the suspected victim of what experts call ‘dicamba drift’, a scenario where the volatile chemical travels miles away from where it’s sprayed. Experts say chemical particles can drift from the time the herbicide is applied up to hours or days later if there are strong winds, high temperatures or if there isn’t a wide enough buffer between crops

In recent years, the drifting particles have been landing on Flamm’s peach and apple trees, causing damage.

Suspected damage from the herbicide dicamba curls up leaves on peach trees at Flamm Orchards...
Suspected damage from the herbicide dicamba curls up leaves on peach trees at Flamm Orchards in Cobden, Illinois(Joce Sterman, InvestigateTV)

The damage suspected from dicamba is something that can be easily spotted. Curled leaves, a widely-agreed upon symptom of the problem, top the peach and apple trees throughout Flamm’s orchard. “I’ve seen it roll peach leaves so tight they look like green beans,” Flamm said.

The damage, he explained, is having a trickledown effect on his harvest: curled leaves affect the quality and size of his fruit, and dicamba exposure can hurt the overall health of some trees. In just the last few years, Flamm estimates he’s lost as many as 6,000 trees to suspected dicamba drift.

The financial cost has also been devastating, totaling at least $1 million just in lost apple production, according to Flamm.

“It’s really frustrating because there’s nothing you can do about it. And you kind of hold your breath every summer because you know it’s coming,” Flamm said.

Dicamba drift well documented by state ag investigators

Flamm is far from the only farmer holding his breath, anticipating damage he can’t control from dicamba drift, which scientists say is heavily influenced by temperature and wind conditions when it’s sprayed.

InvestigateTV found indications the problem has destroyed crops, divided the agriculture industry, and planted seeds of hostility from coast to coast, with one dispute even ending in murder in an Arkansas town.

To see the scope of dicamba drift, our national investigative team requested complaints from 18 states where experts say use of the chemical is most prominent.

While some, including Indiana and Oklahoma, were quick to provide summaries and even investigative files, others were more secretive or put-up big barriers preventing an inside look.

Missouri said it would take months to pull paper records. Nebraska officials wanted to charge us nearly $12,000 to send complaints that other states turned over for free.

In North Dakota, the state agriculture agency notes online state law protects complaint files as confidential. When InvestigateTV inquired, the agency provided basic data on case numbers but confirmed it would not turn over the actual reports.

Ultimately the documents or information provided by the 10 states that responded to InvestigateTV’s requests turned up 4,204 dicamba-related pesticide misuse complaints dating back to 2017.

[Editor’s Note: The Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship provided documents the business day prior to publication of this story, resulting in the attached video above having a different total number of complaints than the amount listed here.]

Documents and data reviewed by InvestigateTV revealed thousands of complaints about dicamba...
Documents and data reviewed by InvestigateTV revealed thousands of complaints about dicamba and dicamba drift.(InvestigateTV)

Illinois, where Flamm Orchards is located, accounted for nearly half of those complaints, with more than 1,700 compiled. Missouri and Indiana also had significant totals, with hundreds of complaints logged by agriculture officials.

Complaints across the nation include an Indiana woman who reported she was forced to defend her plants from drift with a garden hose, spraying them in an attempt to wash the chemical off after she couldn’t get the applicator next door to stop.

A Texas grower saw his vineyard, including a plot set aside for his daughter’s 4-H project, damaged after his neighbor sprayed on a 100-degree day in 20 mile per hour winds, saying he “had to get it done” when approached.

In an email, a frustrated Oklahoma farmer told pesticide enforcers dicamba should be “outlawed until it can be made safer” because it wasn’t the first time crops had been lost.

“I think of it as it’s like secondhand smoke,” said Danielle Melgar, a food and agriculture advocate with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “We need to protect the people who are choosing not to use that substance.”

PIRG has been vocal about what it views as the dangers associated with dicamba.

A recent report from the EPA echoes the call to protect those who are not using dicamba. The report, released in December of last year, details an even more dire picture than InvestigateTV’s data analysis, with more than 3,400 drift incidents in 2021 alone, impacting more than a million acres of crops across 27 states.

Some cases have also ended up in court. A leading producer of the chemical, Bayer, has already agreed to a settlement totaling up to $400 million for farmers who’ve dealt with dicamba damage.

In a statement about the agreement, the company said, “Bayer stands strongly behind the safety and utility of its XtendiMax™ herbicide with VaporGrip™ technology and continues to enhance training and education efforts to help ensure growers use these products successfully. The company is settling the pending dicamba drift cases to be able to focus on the needs of its customers.”

But Melgar at PIRG and several other consumer and environmental advocacy groups say that’s not enough. They want the EPA to issue an outright ban on dicamba.

“These herbicides are not respecting state boundaries,” Melgar said. “Your neighbor in another state could be using dicamba and it drifts into your farm, so you’re completely unprotected unless the EPA steps up.”

Danielle Melgar, a food and agriculture advocate with U.S. PIRG, says complaints about...
Danielle Melgar, a food and agriculture advocate with U.S. PIRG, says complaints about dicamba-related damage have been widespread(Scotty Smith, InvestigateTV)

Regulation, enforcement of drift proves problematic

As it stands now, the guardrails in place to protect crops from drift are confusing for farmers and state agencies. In its report, the EPA acknowledges some applicators struggle to understand the existing rules while others blatantly ignore them.

The agency is currently responsible for laying out restrictions on things like temperature cutoffs and windspeeds related to dicamba application. Those measures are designed to cut down on drift and are even printed on the labels of the chemicals themselves.

Despite the fact that state agencies are often left in charge of enforcing the rules, they don’t have the power to make changes to those rules on their own.

As a result, dicamba hovers in limbo over label jargon and lawsuits, blowing in the wind on a whim, disregarding borders.

The volatility of the rules, however, has more than just the critics of dicamba on edge.

Oregon farmer Jon Iverson understands the anger felt by farmers who have dealt with dicamba drift.

“If I had my crops damaged by a neighbor, I would be extremely frustrated. I feel their pain for sure,” he said.

Jon Iverson stands on the fields where his family grows grass seed on a farm near Portland,...
Jon Iverson stands on the fields where his family grows grass seed on a farm near Portland, Oregon(Omar Granados, KPTV)

That’s why Iverson said he’s incredibly careful with the dicamba application he considers crucial to the success of the grass seed grown on his family farm. He said he needs it to keep weeds from overrunning the crop he sells.

For the six years he’s been spraying, Iverson said he has taken special precautions to minimize any issues, including the use of low-drift nozzles, weather monitoring and the addition of products to minimize drift when dicamba is applied.

His careful strategy is not just for his neighbors. For Iverson, it’s also self-preservation.

His family’s farm grows grapes and flowers right alongside the grass seed that’s sprayed with dicamba. If it drifted onto those crops, the results could be catastrophic.

Not having dicamba at all, though, due to a ban or further restriction, could kill his business altogether, he said.

“You know there’s that potential. Absolutely,” Iverson said. “That’s probably the most drastic result. I hope it wouldn’t get to that point. That is the biggest concern for sure.”

Concerns related to farming without the use of dicamba are shared by farmers across the country, specifically commercial corn, soy and cotton growers. They agree with herbicide makers and agriculture trade groups who don’t believe a ban is the answer.

CropLife America, a trade group representing pesticide and herbicide producers among others, told InvestigateTV farmers need access to a variety of safe and effective tools, including dicamba, to protect against harmful weeds.

In a statement, the organization’s CEO Chris Novak said, “Dicamba has been used effectively and safely for decades, when applied in accordance with label directions. Weeds aggressively compete with crops for water, nutrients, and sunlight. If left unchecked, weeds could have disastrous consequences on harvests in a time when farmers across the country are grappling with a changing climate and a volatile marketplace.”

Our team also contacted three leading dicamba producers, Bayer, BASF and Corteva to get their response to a potential ban that could come because of concerns related to drift damage.

Corteva offered no comment. Bayer’s representative said “Bayer stands fully behind this product. XtendiMax herbicide is a vitally important tool, especially right now when growers need access to a variety of safe and effective crop protection tools to meet global food security needs. Helping growers succeed is our top priority.”

BASF said continued access to dicamba-based herbicides is critical for farmers to control weeds that can have a devastating financial impact on their crops. The company said its product, Engenia, has gone through label improvements that reduce the risk of drift.

“BASF continues to conduct research and development activities toward further reducing the volatility of dicamba based products. While we are concerned about reports of off-target herbicide symptomology affecting non-targeted crops, trees, or other plants, there could be a number of causes for such symptomology. BASF encourages all incidences of suspected off-target movement to be reported to the relevant state Department of Agriculture so that those incidences may be fully investigated to determine the root cause of the symptomology,” a company spokesperson said.

Back in Oregon, Iverson said he thinks the industry needs to find ways to come together to deal with the problem.

“The easy thing is to say we need to just ban it, instead of what solutions there are. If we work together on this, a lot of times we can find a solution that works for everybody. And I hope the EPA would take more of that position than we’re just going to pull it because we had some issues,” he said.

Farmers fighting ban have a powerful voice on Capitol Hill

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is among those who have written the EPA about dicamba. The farmer-turned-lawmaker has voiced opposition to further restrictions on dicamba and called out the agency for creating an environment of uncertainty when it comes to the chemical.

In a recent letter he and three other lawmakers sent to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Grassley called dicamba a “vital product” and said the last thing farmers need is the “EPA voluntarily revoking or severely limiting traditional farming tools and methods.”

In an interview with InvestigateTV, the senator went further, saying the agency should be focused on enforcing the existing protocols.

“You apply it in ways that don’t damage things beyond the field you want to control for weeds in. There’s plenty of ways of doing that,” he said. “Are they saying to the farmer that is abiding by all those rules that you’re going to cut all that product out because there’s somebody that hasn’t applied it according to the label or the regulations set by the EPA? No. You go after that farmer.”

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, talks about the need to preserve use of the herbicide...
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, talks about the need to preserve use of the herbicide dicamba during an interview in his office on Capitol Hill(Scotty Smith, InvestigateTV)

But that may be easier said than done, with many state agriculture offices inundated by complaints and investigations.

The complaint summaries and files reviewed by InvestigateTV indicate there’s only a short window to actually detect dicamba when visual inspections of damage suggest drift. Even in cases where the damage is clear and testing finds evidence of the chemical left behind, documents note it can be hard for investigators to identify who’s responsible.

There is enforcement happening at the state level. Complaint documents show state agencies handing out warnings and fines, or even revoking pesticide licenses because of violations found because of a complaint.

From 2018-2021, Illinois issued $156,250 in fines for violations in dicamba-related cases, roughly 70% of the total fines assessed during that period.

Still, Grassley said states need more funding to police problems with application. He said he wants clear action from the EPA.

“They’re a typical bureaucrat. They hate to give you an answer, because they might be responsible for the answer they give you. We’re going to hear from them. And if I don’t hear from them soon, I’m going to get on them,” Grassley said.

The EPA declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview. But in an email, a spokesperson said the agency is currently working with stakeholders, collecting incident data related to drift from the most recent growing season.

The agency is “reviewing” whether dicamba can be used in a manner that doesn’t pose unreasonable risks to vulnerable crops.

“EPA supports all American farmers and growers in pursuing their livelihood in a manner that does not cause harm to either their neighbors’ livelihood or to the environment,” the spokesperson said.

Standing in his Illinois orchard, Jeff Flamm said he and other farmers on both sides of the dicamba divide feel powerless as they wait for answers.

For now, he’s working the fields his family built, wondering how the winds of fate will impact their legacy.

“I think it’s going to survive. You have to be an eternal optimist to do what we do,” Flamm said. “If we can ever make enough noise, it’ll go away. But we’re definitely in a fight with a huge opponent.”