Complaints about dicamba grow in Iowa, but fines don't

Iowa Ag Department can't fine farmers, only commercial applicators

Stanley Staats walks Dec, 3 at his farm in rural Wapello. Staats has filed several complaints about dicamba damage with
Stanley Staats walks Dec, 3 at his farm in rural Wapello. Staats has filed several complaints about dicamba damage with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The state fined a local elevator $1,000 for dicamba damage to Staats’ chestnut trees. His was the only complaint filed in 2018 that led to a fine. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Drift from the dicamba weed killer continues to damage Iowa crops, but state regulators levy few fines and some farmers have had better luck taking their cases to court.

More than 50 Iowans complained to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship in 2018 about dicamba drifting from a neighbor’s field and damaging their crops.

In the majority of those cases, lab tests confirmed dicamba was on the damaged plants. But only one complaint the whole year led to a fine.

“The state’s not doing its job,” said Stan Staats, 74, of Wapello.

Staats’s July 2018 complaint against Farmers Elevator & Exchange in Wapello resulted in that year’s only fine — a $1,000 negotiated civil penalty — after state inspectors confirmed trees and plants on his farm were damaged by drift from a neighbor’s field. He was glad to see the fine but said it happened only because the elevator had previous violations.

Staats sued the elevator and another farmer in 2017 and settled out of court a year later. He’s considering another lawsuit because continued drift of weedkillers, including dicamba and glyphosate, has killed dozens of trees in the 700-tree chestnut grove he planted 30 years ago.

First the leaves wither and fray, reducing the tree’s capacity to absorb sunshine and conduct photosynthesis. Then the tree dies, costing time and money to remove it and plant a new sapling. Fewer trees means fewer chestnuts Staats can sell in the fall.

“It doesn’t make you feel good because through the years, you’ve lost several hundred thousand dollars,” he said. “Next go around, we’re not going to go as easy on them.”


Volatile chemical

Dicamba, the active ingredient in several name-brand herbicides, has been used on Iowa farms for decades to control broad-leaved weeds, including waterhemp. The weedkiller is ground-applied. But because dicamba is more volatile than some pesticides, it can evaporate after it lands and drift to nearby fields and forests.

The 2020 growing season was one of the worst in decades for dicamba damage, according to weed scientists. A record 329 pesticide misuse complaints were filed to the state ag department.

Among the rules dicamba applicators are supposed to follow are not spraying in high winds and leaving a buffer between the field being treated and sensitive crops, such as fruit trees or organic crops.

Review of complaints

The Gazette reviewed 53 dicamba complaints filed with the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Bureau in 2018 — the most recent full year of enforcement actions — and found nearly all noted some sort of violation, including excess wind speeds, no buffer zone, incomplete documentation on spray forms or insufficient training.

In more than 30 complaints, bureau records showed lab tests confirmed dicamba residue on the damaged plants.

Nearly all violators received advisories or warnings — not fines.

“Just because we receive a complaint doesn’t mean it will turn into a report we can base a civil penalty on,” said Pesticide Bureau Chief Gretchen Paluch. “In order for us to issue a civil penalty, we need to be able to identify the responsible party and verify a violation actually occurred.”

Paluch confirmed the reason Staats’s complaint rose to the level of a civil penalty was because Farmers Elevator & Exchange had past violations. The elevator general manager declined to comment for this article.

Limited authority

The bureau’s authority is limited because staff may fine only commercial applicators, including elevators and ag services companies. Private applicators, such as farmers spraying their own fields, can get only advisories or warnings.

Private applicators, including farmers, accounted for at least half the 2018 complaints.


That limitation surprised state Sen. Kevin Kinney, who farms near Oxford and is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“I didn’t realize that was the case,” he said.

Kinney said he’s heard of situations in which farmers whose dicamba application damaged someone else’s crops have paid for the damage without a state complaint. But he’s not opposed to considering legislation broadening the bureau’s authority.

Bill Wyant, of Marengo, would like to see tougher enforcement.

Fireside Winery, which Wyant owns with his wife, Rona, lost 2,000 grape plants in 2011 to three chemicals — dicamba, glyphosate and acetochlor — that drifted from a spray application at his neighbor’s farm.

“When a grape gets hit, they kind of cup and curl a little bit,” Wyant said. “You can really see the veins in the leaf itself.”

The Wyants filed a lawsuit, using the Pesticide Bureau’s investigation as evidence, he said. The case dragged on for three years before a settlement was reached right before trial.

“Two weeks before the trial, they settled out of court. We got a quarter-million dollars,” Wyant said.

That payout caused other chemical applicators to tread more carefully around the winery, he said. But barring legal action, many landowners have limited options to recoup damages from chemical drift.

“They don’t have the teeth to really fine large amounts of money,” Wyant said about the Pesticide Bureau.


Rifts with neighbors

Weak state penalties cause some Iowans to bypass the complaint process altogether, said Bob Hartzler, an Iowa State University agronomy professor and extension weed specialist.

“They have come to learn that you call in the state, get an enemy with your neighbor, and nothing happens,” he said. “Nothing happens to change the behavior of the offending parties. That’s pretty frustrating for some people.”

Lynn Rinderknecht, 72, of Van Horne, was one of the 50-plus Iowans who filed dicamba complaints in 2018, when his organic soybeans had reduced yield because of drift damage.

“A lot of farmers don’t even say anything because they don’t want to cause problems with their neighbors,” Rinderknecht said.

Investigators found dicamba on Rinderknecht’s beans and determined Willbros Ag LLC of Vinton applied the weedkiller when the wind was faster than 10 mph, did not leave a buffer and used an unapproved mix of chemicals in the spray, according to the June 12, 2019, warning letter.

“Failure to take the steps necessary to correct violations and prevent repeat violations may result in a civil penalty,” the letter states. “This file is closed.”

Willbros declined to comment on this story.

Rinderknecht said he’d like to see the Iowa Legislature require farmers who use dicamba products to buy indemnity insurance to pay for proven damages from drift. “Another thing that would help is if they had a deadline.”

New rules

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken care of the deadline with new rules.


New registrations for dicamba products prohibit application after June 30 to reduce the chances high temperatures will cause the chemical to volatilize and drift.

The rules also increase the downwind buffer between sprayed fields and other plant species and require applicators to mix in a pH-buffering agent to reduce volatility.

But the biggest change is the EPA’s decision to prohibit states from adding more restrictions beyond the federal rules. Andrew Thostenson, pesticide program specialist for North Dakota State University Extension, said the change may result in some states not authorizing use of dicamba products there.

“That will precipitate a whole lot of other problems for users and other registrants,” he said. “It seems to me the system has worked pretty well for 35 years.”

Thostenson does not see the EPA changing these rules — at least right away — when President-elect Joe Biden comes into office.

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