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Farmer vs. farmer

The fight over the herbicide dicamba has cost one man his life and turned neighbor against neighbor in East Arkansas.

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IN MONETTE: Karen Wallace, widow of Mike Wallace, wants to see the pesticide dicamba banned. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • IN MONETTE: Karen Wallace, widow of Mike Wallace, wants to see the pesticide dicamba banned.

At the peak of summer in the little town of Monette in Craighead County, the soybeans and cotton in surrounding fields a jealous green, the pear tree that stands 20 feet from the grave of Mike Wallace looks like it has been blowtorched, every leaf blighted, curled and black at the edges. It's the ugly residue of drifting dicamba, the herbicide for which Wallace literally gave his life.

According to investigators, on Oct. 27, 2016, Wallace, who farmed 5,000 acres of corn, soybeans and cotton near the Arkansas/Missouri border, arranged by phone to meet a farmhand named Allan Curtis Jones, 26, of Arbyrd, Mo., on West County Road 38 north of the Mississippi County town of Leachville to discuss Wallace's suspicions that the farm where Jones worked was the source of drifting dicamba that had damaged some of Wallace's crops. Wallace, who had been vocal in his opposition to the herbicide, had been quoted in an August 2016 story in The Wall Street Journal, telling the newspaper that at least 40 percent of his soybean crop had been damaged by drifting dicamba since June. He'd filed complaints twice with the Arkansas State Plant Board, the state agency that oversees claims of crop damage, about damage from drifting dicamba and had encouraged other farmers to report their damage as well.

When Wallace and Jones met outside of Leachville, Jones brought along his cousin and a gun. According to statements issued by Mississippi County Sheriff Dale Cook at the time of the shooting, Jones told investigators that an argument had ensued. In the midst of it, Wallace, who was not carrying a weapon, grabbed Jones by the arm. At that point, investigators say, Jones pulled away, pulled his pistol, and fired into Wallace's body until the magazine was empty. Wallace, a father of two who'd farmed in Mississippi County since he was a boy, was hit at least four times, and died in the dust on the south shoulder of the county road, with Jones' cousin using his shirt in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding. Jones soon was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder, and later released on $150,000 bond.

Whether the shooting was self-defense or homicide will be up to a jury. Jones is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 11. A spokesman for the Mississippi County Sheriff's Office referred all questions about Wallace's murder to the prosecutor for Mississippi County. The prosecutor handling the case did not return a call seeking comment at press time. Calls to the Blytheville defense attorney representing Jones also went unreturned at press time.

However the case against Jones turns out, Wallace's family has been working since his death to see justice done in another way: by trying to get the use of dicamba banned statewide. A 120-day ban was put in place in early July, the fine for illegal spraying of the herbicide increased 25-fold on Aug. 1, and a task force was established to look for solutions.

But a permanent ban on dicamba would run afoul of the needs of farmers, who are facing a shrinking pool of options in the fight against herbicide-resistant weeds, and of corporate investment in genetically modified, dicamba-tolerant crop technology that is easily worth billions. It's a quest that has put Wallace's family at odds with many of their neighbors and, in some ways, even their own best interests as farmers. But they say it is a fight Mike Wallace would make if he were alive.

On the wind

Developed in 1958 by the German-based chemical company BASF and first used on corn crops in the mid-1960s, dicamba is a plant-hormone-mimicking herbicide that's deadly to a host of weeds and other plants, including many common vegetable crops and species of ornamental flowers and trees, like the Bradford pear that stands near Wallace's grave. While it works like gangbusters against pigweed, which has been a bane of row crop agriculture long before the plant began developing a stubborn genetic resistance to glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup, cotton and soybean farmers in East Arkansas didn't use it much during the growing season because dicamba is highly lethal to those crops, which have long been the lifeblood of the area. Even a light dose of dicamba on soybeans can cause curled leaves, stunted plants and a reduction in yield. A medium-to- heavy misting can kill them outright. That, combined with dicamba being prone to drift if applied improperly and its "volatility" — the tendency to change back to a vapor, lift off of crops and float away to neighboring fields under the right atmospheric conditions — would have made the idea of Arkansas farmers spraying large amounts of dicamba in high summer unthinkable 10 years ago, not to mention illegal. Until this year, spraying dicamba beyond April 15, after vulnerable crops had emerged from the soil, was against the law in Arkansas, with violations carrying up to a $1,000 fine. When it was used, dicamba was mostly employed as a "burn down" herbicide to clear an agricultural slate in preparation for planting, before the plants it might harm had sprouted or leafed out.

ALLAN CURTIS JONES
  • ALLAN CURTIS JONES

But that was then. This is now.

In 2015, the Missouri-based agricultural giant Monsanto released its Xtend brand cottonseed. A year later it put out Xtend soybeans. Both are genetically modified to be tolerant of dicamba. Potentially worth billions, the GMO technology promised to be a new weapon in farmers' ongoing fight against several stubborn weed varieties, including pigweed, resulting in higher yields and incomes. To farmers stretched thin, it must have sounded like a godsend.

The new dicamba-tolerant seeds hit the market quickly, and more cotton and soybean farmers began to plant them. But they could not yet use a legal dicamba-based herbicide on their crops, because one was not available. BASF's Engenia, advertised as being less likely to drift off target, was not approved for use in the state until fall 2016, and another low-volatility dicamba formulation, Monsanto's Xtendimax with Vapor Grip, is still not approved for use in Arkansas.

Early adopters who had purchased dicamba-tolerant seed with the expectation they'd soon be able to spray their fields with reformulated dicamba and watch weeds melt away were disappointed with the progress of getting the lower volatility formulas approved. Whether out of greed, historically tight financial margins or desperation at out-of-control weeds, some farmers became outlaws in 2015 and 2016, spraying older, more drift- and volatility-prone formulas of dicamba on their dicamba-tolerant crops, knowing that even if they got caught, the $1,000 fine amounted to a speeding ticket when compared to the increased profits they stood to reap. In the same August 2016 Wall Street Journal article that featured Wallace speaking out about dicamba damage, an assistant director of enforcement with the Arkansas State Plant Board was quoted as saying she'd been openly told by farmers spraying dicamba in violation of the law: "We'll write you a check." If a farmer has 5,000 acres or more under cultivation, all planted with dicamba-tolerant seed, it's not hard to divide by $1,000 and do the financial math.

With some farmers planting dicamba-tolerant crops in proximity to their neighbors' dicamba-susceptible crops and then spraying the older formulations of dicamba, the result in recent years has been like dropping a bomb on East Arkansas agriculture. According to a report released July 25 by a scientist at the University of Missouri, 17 states have received reports of dicamba-related crop damage since the dicamba-tolerant seeds were introduced, with an estimated 2.5 million acres affected. Arkansas was the hardest hit by far, according to the report, with an estimated 850,000 acres of crops in the state damaged. As of early August, the State Plant Board had received over 840 complaints of suspected dicamba-related issues. Gardens and landscaping, some of it miles away from the nearest dicamba-tolerant fields, were scorched and stunted. In a moment that might be funny if it wasn't so indicative of the chaos that's been sown in East Arkansas, the damage this year included 100 acres of soybeans unexpectedly whacked by drifting dicamba at the University of Arkansas's Northeast Research and Extension Center in Mississippi County. A June press release on the damage noted ironically that the damaged soybean plots, which had to be plowed under and replanted, were to be used in research on dicamba drift and volatility. In another irony that might be shocking if it weren't so sad, members of Mike Wallace's family, who have every reason in the world to hate dicamba and what the controversial herbicide has done to relationships in the close-knit farming communities of Northeast Arkansas, planted a sizable part of their acreage this year in dicamba-tolerant crops, solely in self-defense. Tales of defensive planting of dicamba-tolerant seeds have become common, with a kind of forced monopoly-by-attrition taking hold. According to Monsanto, 18 million acres of dicamba-tolerant soybeans were planted in the U.S. this year, including 1.5 million acres in Arkansas — about half the total estimated soybean crop in the state.

Having approved the use of BASF's Engenia in the fall of 2016 over the objections of the Wallace family, the State Plant Board reversed itself on June 23 and voted to recommend a temporary ban on the "in-crop" use of dicamba-based herbicides, a decision that soon received the approval of Governor Hutchinson. A statement released by Monsanto after the Plant Board's vote said the board didn't allow farmers who had already planted dicamba-tolerant seeds to describe how a ban would affect their operations. "Instead," the statement read, "the Board based its decision on off-target movement claims that are still being investigated and have not been substantiated. ... Arkansas farmers should not be forced to continue to operate at a disadvantage to farmers in other states where bans like the board's current proposed action do not exist."

The issue was referred to a joint meeting of the state House and Senate committees on agriculture, economic development and forestry on July 7. By the time the joint committee meeting started at 9 a.m. that day, the room's large, curved gallery was packed, legislators in suits shoulder to shoulder with farmers in plaid shirts and mesh trucker caps who'd driven through the dawn from East Arkansas to be there. The public comment period was crowded and divided: farmers talking about their extensive dicamba-related crop damage vs. farmers talking about the need for the new technology to help solve their herbicide-resistant weed problems. A representative from a small poultry producer told the committee that his niche business model of selling non-GMO chicken was being threatened by damage to the soybeans his business grows for feed. Weed scientist Dr. Ford Baldwin, who called dicamba the biggest train wreck to ever hit agriculture, told the assembled legislators that the day before the meeting, a farmer in that very room had been involved in a fistfight with another farmer over crop damage. He didn't say whether the farmer in question was for or against the ban.

As it has been at every state-level meeting on dicamba that's been held since October 2016, Wallace's family was there, pushing for a ban. Kerin Hawkins, Wallace's sister, addressed the committee. The month after her brother's death, she and other members of her family had pleaded with the Plant Board to ban dicamba, but BASF's lower-volatility formulation Engenia had been approved with restrictions, including a quarter-mile buffer zone between dicamba spraying and non-dicamba-tolerant crops. Hawkins appeared again in July to ask the joint committee to support the ban. She said that in addition to damage to her family's peanut crops, their 10-acre garden patch inside the city of Leachville, which she said is over a quarter mile from any dicamba spraying, had also been damaged by drift.

After the joint committee voted to recommend the ban, an eight-member subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council officially took no action on the plan, which allowed the 120-day ban on in-crop dicamba use to go into effect on July 11. A $25,000 fine for illegal spraying of the herbicide went into effect last week.

KNOWING THE KILLER HERBICIDE: Weed scientist Dr. Ford Baldwin.
  • KNOWING THE KILLER HERBICIDE: Weed scientist Dr. Ford Baldwin.

An act of man

State Rep. Joe Jett, a Republican who lives at Success in far Northeast Arkansas, is a retired farmer and looks the part. A supporter of the temporary ban, Jett attended the July 7 meeting and invited Baldwin to speak. Jett said heavy rains in Northeast Arkansas this spring helped keep dicamba damage from being worse this year, simply because farmers couldn't get into the waterlogged fields to spray. "Had it not been for that," Jett said, "I think the atmosphere would have really loaded up with dicamba and you would have seen a lot more widespread damage than what we saw as it was."

Jett said he is in favor of advanced technology to help farmers, including genetically modified seeds, but wouldn't use dicamba himself "in good, clear conscience" given the damage he's seen in Northeast Arkansas. "Knowing that we're going to go out here and hurting people and putting ourselves in front of our neighbors? I can't get my head wrapped around that," he said. "Obviously you're always going to have some folks out there who don't care what's right and who are going to take care of themselves. But I think a lot of it is that the margins are just so tight [in farming], and farmers need every break they can get. They're willing to look the other way and be more worried about themselves surviving than they are about their neighbors surviving. I think that's a lot of it."

Asked whether members of the legislature have discussed a way to financially assist farmers in the state hit by dicamba-related crop loss, Jett said the state is on a tight budget and will be unlikely to help. "I don't know how you could ever get into that," he said. "Farmers have insurance, but [the damage] can't be manmade. It has to be an act of God. To answer your question: No, I think that's probably beyond the state. We don't have the means to help in that regard." Federal crop insurance only covers losses due to drought, flood or natural disasters. The only remedy for those farmers whose incomes were damaged by dicamba may be to sue, and some are doing that. There are at least two civil suits against Monsanto and BASF over dicamba use in Arkansas, one representing farmers who planted non-Xtend crops and suffered losses due to dicamba drift, and another by farmers who planted Xtend seeds expecting to be able to use the lower-volatility formulations of dicamba but can't because of the ban. Both lawsuits are seeking class-action status.

Terry Fuller, a member of the State Plant Board who runs Fuller Seed and Supply in Poplar Grove in Phillips County and farms 3,000 acres near the Indian Bay community, spoke in favor of the ban at the July 7 meeting. While he said farmers in his area appear to be abiding by the dicamba ban for the most part, he believes the reduction in yields to non-dicamba resistant crops caused by damage early in the season could be severe.

DRIFT: A Bradford pear tree near her Wallace's grave shows the damage dicamba causes to vegetation, including crops. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • DRIFT: A Bradford pear tree near her Wallace's grave shows the damage dicamba causes to vegetation, including crops.

"It's going to be dire because we didn't ban it sooner," Fuller said. "It's crazy how much damage we've got, and it's going to be real damage. It's going to amount to millions." Fuller, who told the joint committee in July that he couldn't leave his house in any direction without seeing extensive crop damage caused by dicamba, said he believes the companies behind the dicamba-tolerant seed and low-volatility herbicide are engaging in "a strategy to force everybody to plant" the dicamba-tolerant seed. While the chemical companies have tried to put at least some of the blame for damage in Arkansas this year on misapplication of Engenia, Fuller said he doesn't buy it. "I contend that we've got world-class farmers; the best there are anywhere in the world," he said. "I don't just believe they were applying [Engenia] right, I absolutely, positively know that a lot of it was applied exactly right."

The sad part, Fuller said, is that some of those world-class farmers are the ones getting the black eye. "We're trespassing on our neighbors, and we're trespassing on our neighbors in town," he said. "It's not just our neighbor farmers. There's a lot of damage in yards. You hate to say that and call attention to it, but it is a reality."

Baldwin agrees, and has similar concerns about how the dicamba damage will play to a public already spooked about herbicides. A respected weed scientist who worked for the University of Arkansas for 27 years, Baldwin retired in 2002 and now runs a consulting business, Practical Weed Consultants, with his wife. Baldwin has been something of the Paul Revere of the chaos dicamba-resistant-seed technology could potentially bring to agriculture.

"I said four years ago that dicamba would drive a wedge between farmers, which it has," Baldwin told the Arkansas Times. "You've got 50 percent that wants the technology and 50 percent that doesn't want the technology and don't want the dicamba sprayed on them. And it's going to drive a wedge between agriculture and nonagriculture. I'm not being critical of anybody or slamming anybody. It's just the way it is."

In his testimony before the joint committee in July, Baldwin spoke of his suspicions that even the new, officially less-volatile formulation of dicamba is moving from field to field or even traveling miles away due to volatility and temperature inversions that pull the chemical off sprayed crops and into the air at night. Ford talked of farmers inadvertently "loading the air" with dicamba, which then floated around in the atmosphere like invisible smoke until temperature fluctuations forced it down on farms and yards, decimating crops and ornamental plants almost as if it was sprayed there on purpose.

Baldwin said he never believed he'd see farmers show such disregard for each other as they have since dicamba-tolerant crops were introduced. He called the murder of Wallace "the low point" of his career. "I never dreamed I would see farmers show the insensitivity toward each other in some cases," Baldwin said. "That doesn't apply across the board. But you know some farmers just have the attitude: 'My neighbor knew I was planting Xtend crops, so it's his own fault that I damaged him. He should have planted Xtend crops, too.' Well, hell, he's got a right to plant anything he wants to plant and not have it damaged."

Though the less-volatile forms of dicamba seem like a solution to the drift problems being experienced by farmers, Baldwin said the science of the herbicide seems to show that dicamba's volatility may be a very difficult problem to solve — one he believes the companies have downplayed. "The problem is there's a difference between less volatile and nonvolatile," Baldwin said. "It's my understanding that there were some totally nonvolatile dicambas developed back in the early days of the herbicide. The problem was that the weed-control efficacy declined as the volatility declined. ... That doesn't mean it couldn't be revisited, but the best information we have right now is there is a relationship between volatility and weed control efficacy [in dicamba]."

Baldwin doesn't believe operator error in spraying BASF's less-volatile version of dicamba and scofflaws continuing to spray older, cheaper formulations of the herbicide in violation of the law account for all the damage he saw early in the 2017 growing season.

"If you go east to Crowley's Ridge, every single field that's not a dicamba [tolerant] crop is basically damaged, and has the same level of damage," he said. "A lot of these fields are several miles away from where any dicamba was applied. You can't do that with physical drift. Drift is the blowing of physical spray particles, and you can't blow those as far as a lot of people think before you blow them completely away. Now you can do a lot of damage close to the source, don't get me wrong. But when you go in areas where every field looks exactly the same over a countywide area or multiple county area, common logic tells you that you're getting the same dose rate of a herbicide spread over a vast number of acres. The only way you can do that is to load the air — load stable air masses during temperature inversions and move it that way."

From the beginning, Baldwin said, everybody knew dicamba-tolerant crops had to be an "all or nothing technology," which will have to be planted on 100 percent of acres before damage to nontolerant crops will cease. But even if farmers plant every acre of cotton and soybeans in the state in dicamba-resistant seeds, Baldwin notes, that still doesn't solve the problem of damage to landscaping, trees, ornamental plants, vegetable gardens and other vegetable crops. He believes that aspect will be bad for agriculture as a whole.

"You get into the horticultural crops, then you get into the home gardens and you get into the trees in town," he said. "To me, the more dicamba we put in the air, the more you're going to affect these other types of vegetation. You might solve the soybean issue short term, but you're going to get this thing outside of agriculture. All of a sudden, when peoples' gardens are affected, when the trees in their yards are affected, then they're going to start asking the questions: 'Is this stuff safe for me to eat? Is it safe for me to breathe?'"

THE WALLACE FAMILY: Mike kneels on right.
  • THE WALLACE FAMILY: Mike kneels on right.

The long row

In a house at the edge of a cotton field in Monette, the crops stretching away to the edge of the world in all directions, Karen Wallace talked about the husband she has to go on without. He was born within three miles of the spot, and started his first crop at 17. Married her at 18. Put her through college so she could realize her own dream of being a teacher. Raised two kids and saw them have children of their own. He was, she said, a man always thinking of the community, the kind of guy who would go around town with his own equipment after rare snowfalls and clear the driveways of elderly folks who'd plowed their lives into the soil of Craighead and Mississippi counties.

"He wasn't a farmer that farmed out of the seat of his truck," Karen said. "He was a hands-on farmer. He was in the field daylight until dark. That was just his life." Which is, of course, what makes his death so hard to understand.

Karen said that in 2015, Mike attended one of the first meetings in the area about the introduction of dicamba-resistant seed at Delta Crawfish in Paragould. "At the meeting, Monsanto just kept discussing that they were going to release the seed, though the herbicide had not been approved yet, but kept telling farmers that by growing season it would be," she said. "We didn't plant any dicamba [tolerant] cotton that year, but we had neighbors that did." Wallace estimates they suffered $150,000 worth of crop damage from dicamba that first year. The issues in the area have only accelerated since then.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything like this that has turned farmer against farmer," Mike's sister, Pam Sandusky, said. "They've always been there to help each other do whatever." Karen Wallace agreed that dicamba-tolerant crops have turned the ethics of farming topsy-turvy. "It was like the farmers who turned their neighbors in [for illegal dicamba use], they're the bad guys," Karen said. "It was like, 'You're causing something we really need to be taken away.' It's just crazy to me."

The day her husband was killed, Wallace said, she'd run an errand in Kennett, Mo. The harvest done, he was leveling ground. Though she knows now that Mike had gotten a number for Allan Curtis Jones from an acquaintance, she said he'd never mentioned the name to her or their son, Bradley, and didn't tell either of them he planned to meet outside of Leachville.

"He told me, 'I'll be right back,' " Wallace said, "and that was that. I never talked to him again."

As soon as her husband was killed, everybody seemed to know it immediately. Word got back to her quickly. Not knowing what else to do, she and several family members met at the gin in Monette, which is run by Mike's cousin. She called her sister in Jonesboro, pleading with her to get to her daughter, Kimberly, who was attending an event at Arkansas State University. By the time she did, Kimberly had already heard through a post on Facebook.

"This man is probably going to claim self-defense," Karen said. "Mike is 56 years old. This man was 26. He's 30 years younger than him, probably 50 pounds heavier. He went and got his cousin. Mike never carried a gun. We don't know why he decided to shoot him."

There were over 1,000 people at Mike Wallace's funeral, the line to pay respects stretching out the door of the First Baptist Church and into the parking lot. When he was buried in the little cemetery in Monette, the farmers for miles around brought their tractors, a burbling second line, and ringed the paved lane around the graveyard. "I knew Mike had a lot of friends," Karen said. "But for that many people to pay their respects to Mike was just unbelievable. It was overwhelming."

The death has been hard on the whole family. Kerin Hawkins, another Wallace sister, displayed two photos. One is of their mother, Mary, standing in deep cotton with son Mike two weeks before his death. Another shows Mary, at least 30 pounds lighter, surrounded by family at this year's Fourth of July celebration.

"I didn't even realize it until we took this picture in July," Hawkins said. "I thought, 'We're losing her.'

"They took Mike from us. They took Mike from his family, from his grandchildren. He had a grandchild born this year, his first grandson with the Wallace name. His grandson will never know him."

Still, both Wallace and Hawkins say they joined many of their neighbors and planted dicamba-tolerant crops in self-defense, knowing they might take a hit bad enough to wipe them out if they didn't. "That's what my husband and my sons did this year," Hawkins said. "We've got all dicamba cotton. ... We were afraid of what would happen to us. It wasn't that we necessarily wanted to plant it. It's that we had to."

Mike Wallace was more than a brother to them, Hawkins and Sandusky said. Abandoned by their biological father when he was a teenager, Mike Wallace stepped up, becoming a father figure, protector, counselor and friend. "One of the first things I said to my husband whenever I found out what happened and that Mike was gone, was, 'I feel like an orphan,' " Sandusky said. "I never realized how much I looked to him, because our dad kind of walked out of our lives. I never realized how much I looked to him for answers, for help, for everything. He took over, and I never realized it until we lost him."

Farming has changed since Wallace started, Karen Wallace said, and not for the better. "I think we're in a society where we want the easiest way out," she said. "The easiest way, the fastest way, regardless of who it hurts or what happens. But farming is not like that. Farming is hard work. Mike was willing to put out the work." There's work to be done now, and Wallace is not here to do it, so Sandusky, Hawkins, Karen Wallace and other family members will keep making the long drive to Little Rock any time there's a meeting on dicamba. They want to see the state's temporary ban made permanent.

"We were raised to be there for each other," Hawkins said. "If one person was hurting in the family, you were there for them. You were there to back them up. You always had their back. It didn't matter. He would have done the same for us. He would be there fighting for us, and we're not going to let him down. We cannot let them get away with what they've done and what they've taken from us."



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