Local Courts Lift Arkansas Weedkiller Ban, Creating Chaos

The wild battle in Arkansas over dicamba, the controversial and drift-prone herbicide, just got even crazier. Local courts have told some farmers that they don't have to obey a summertime ban on dicamba spraying that the state's agricultural regulators issued last fall. The state has appealed.

Meanwhile, farmers can't decide what seeds to plant, because seed and herbicide decisions are tightly linked. Time is short, though, because planting season has arrived.

"This not-knowing thing is concerning," says Mike Sullivan, a farmer in the town of Burdette. "It's embarrassing, is what it is."

"Nobody knows what's going on," says Tom Burnham, another farmer located not far away in Blytheville.

Dicamba has ignited fierce debates among farmers across much of the country. The chemical is now used much more widely because Monsanto has introduced versions of soybeans that have been genetically modified to tolerate it. But last summer, the first year in which dicamba could be sprayed on these tolerant varieties, the chemical drifted into neighboring fields, damaging millions of acres of other crops. The damage was worst in Arkansas, and the state's Plant Board moved to ban any use of dicamba from April 16 to Oct. 31.

Monsanto and many farmers fought the rule, but those battles appeared to be resolved when, in February, an Arkansas court dismissed Monsanto's challenge to the state's dicamba restrictions.

In late March, though, a different challenge to the dicamba ban, by a group of six farmers, produced a different decision. A judge dismissed the farmers' lawsuit, citing a ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court that state agencies cannot be sued — yet the judge also gave the farmers exactly what they wanted. He lifted the ban on those six farmers because, he decided, they had been denied a legal avenue to appeal that ban.

That ruling applied only to the six farmers who'd sued. But other farmers immediately seized the opportunity to file similar lawsuits in other counties. According to press reports, 155 farmers have joined similar lawsuits, and judges in Mississippi County and Phillips County have issued temporary injunctions that allow those farmers to spray dicamba.

The state government is fighting back, appealing these decisions to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

In the meantime, farmers are trying to make sense of it all. "We can't have some people spraying, because they got a lawyer, and others not spraying because they didn't get a lawyer," says Sullivan, who opposes the full-season ban on dicamba spraying but has not joined in any of the court challenges.

The uncertainty is leaving farmers in a quandary about what type of soybeans to plant. If the state's dicamba ban stays in place, a substantial number of farmers — perhaps a quarter, according to one crop consultant — will plant soybean varieties that can tolerate a different herbicide, called glufosinate or Liberty. If the ban is overturned, however, some of those farmers would switch to dicamba-tolerant soybeans, either because they'd prefer to use dicamba or because they fear that their neighbors will — which means they may need to plant a variety that won't be harmed by the drifting chemical.

Sullivan says many farmers have "double-booked" seed purchases, reserving both types of seed, and are waiting until the last minute to make a final decision.

The Arkansas Plant Board issued a statement last week indicating that it will not, for now, enforce its April 15 cutoff date on dicamba spraying. It will simply abide by federal rules on dicamba "until there is more certainty from the court system in interpreting recent decisions."

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