Their names almost make them sound like the villains in an old John Wayne movie: Palmer Amaranth, Tall Waterhemp, and Giant Ragweed.
In reality, they’re among the worst invaders in a farmer’s soybean fields—prolific weeds that rob our food crops of moisture and nutrients, depress our yields, and resist many forms of herbicide.
To fight them, we need the best technology available—and on October 31, the Environmental Protection Agency tossed us a lifeline.
Regulators extended for two years our ability to use a form of a soybean that resists dicamba, a traditional crop-protection product that helps us defeat these terrible weeds. Last year, farmers planted about 25 million acres of dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton. This year, that figure topped 50 million acres, in a compelling testament to the power and effectiveness of these crops.
Shortly after the EPA announced its decision, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue may have put it best: “It presents farmers with options.”
That’s what we need out here: As many safe and proven options as possible for growing the food we need.
This technology, in fact, is a friend of sustainable agriculture. It allows farmers to grow more food on less land. It keeps consumer prices low. It helps us conserve our wild spaces. These are important economic and environmental benefits—exactly the sort of payoff we should expect from a new technology.
Last summer, I used dicamba on soybeans for the first time. My fields were almost weed-free. They were the cleanest I’ve seen in quite a while. At harvest, I was pleased with the final result. I became persuaded that this is an excellent option and farmers like me ought to have access to it.
The freedom to use dicamba, however, also entails important responsibilities.
This is pretty basic, but it must be said: Farmers who use dicamba must read the label and follow the instructions.
As the time for reregistration of dicamba by the EPA approached, a few voices had called on the EPA to block new uses of dicamba, even though this is a time-tested product that farmers have applied safely around the world since its introduction in 1967. By granting a two-year approval, the EPA wisely has recognized the value of the product for controlling weeds. It also has fine-tuned the regulations that govern its use.
Over the next two years, we farmers have to make sure we get it right. Let’s study the label, follow its rules, and use dicamba properly. Check the nozzle tips on your sprayers, use drift-reduction agents, clean out your tanks, create borders between fields, and apply crop-protection products only at approved times. Some of the rules for 2019 will be different from those in 2018—and we’ll need to make sure that we understand all of the changes.
Also, let’s talk to our neighbors. In my area, at least, we’re communicating more often, farmer to farmer, about our planting choices. We discuss who is using dicamba and where, trading information about best practices, and so on.
As we tally up this year’s harvests and begin to makes choices about what we’ll plant in the spring, I’m pleased that we’ll have the option of growing dicamba-resistant crops. Farming is a tough business in the best of circumstances and it’s even tougher in a world of climate change and trade conflict.
The EPA’s sensible decision will make farming in 2019 a little bit easier—and when we all do our part, we’ll continue to benefit from an excellent tool for fighting weeds.
A version of this column first appeared Nov 6 at The Hill.