One very scary thing that turned up in the news the other day was a report that virtually all non-dicamba resistant soybeans in the entire state of Iowa have been damaged by drifting dicamba based herbicides. (Source: Iowa sees most dicamba damage since 1960s | Crop | agupdate.com) The damage is the most expensive since dicamba was first introduced back in the 1960s. This isn’t just scattered spots. According to the article it seems that every single soybean field that wasn’t planted with dicamba resistant beans is showing various degrees of damage from drifting herbicide
This is exactly the kind of scenario some farmers and environmentalists feared when Monsanto first introduced its dicamba blend herbicides and dicamba resistant soybean seeds. The fear was that Monsanto would have a literal monopoly on the sale of soybean seed because if you didn’t plant their more expensive seed, you risked your crop being damaged by herbicide drift from the fields of other farmers. The company, of course, claimed this was false, that its herbicide was safe, and there was nothing to worry about. Yeah. Right…
You may recall that the EPA was forced to rescind its approval of Monsanto’s (now owned by Bayer) dicamba blend herbicide because it violated its own procedures and ignored data indicating serious problems with it. So why is the stuff still being used? Because it was ruled that farmers could continue to use any dicamba based herbicides they still had in stock, and because the EPA isn’t actually in control of what herbicides can be used on farm fields, the individual states are. And, of course, the court ruling applies only to two of the three dicamba blends being used with soybeans. So dicamba is still available and can still be used, depending on the rules of individual states. And the court ruling only applied to two of the three major types of dicamba blends on the market.
Granted, this situation is a bit extraordinary in that a “perfect storm” of conditions came into play that permitted the herbicide to vaporize and drift so badly in Iowa. But the basic problem is that despite all of the restrictions and conditions that apply to the application of these products, they are still vaporizing and drifting over long distances. It seems that there are simply no conditions under which there isn’t a significant risk of the herbicide getting out of control and damaging not just non-GM soybeans but other plants as well.
Let’s catch up with what’s been going on in agriculture.
Let’s lead off with this odd little item. So, here’s the scenario: You’ve just survived a hurricane. Your house has been flooded, your whole neighborhood has been destroyed, you’ve lost everything you own, you’re trying to cleanup and rebuild. You desperately need money, building supplies, cleaning supplies, drywall, lumber, shingles, plywood… So you’re sitting there staring at the ruins of your neighborhood and you think, “Wow, what I really need is a big hunk of cheese…”
That is apparently what some people in Wisconsin thought when they shipped 45,000 pounds of cheese to the hurricane ravaged areas of the country. Yep, they thought, what they need isn’t money or building supplies or cleaning supplies or anything else that might actually be, well, useful. What they need is forty five thousand pounds of cheese…
Dairy/Milk: All things considered, the dairy business wasn’t totally horrible this year. Not great, but not terrible. The average price for Class III milk (the kind that’s used for cheese and butter) for the year was in the $16.10 to $16.20 range for 2017. That’s considerably better than 2016 when the average price was about $1.60 lower. The price seems to have been propped up largely by demand for butter and cheese, which has remained fairly strong through a large part of the year.
But the ever present specter of over production is once more haunting the dairy business. Production in the US was up around 2.5% over the year, and production has been going up in other dairy producing areas of the world as well, and the market is showing signs of strain. Butter prices on the Chicago Mercantile have dropped from 2.65 to around 2.21, butterfat exports have fallen, cheese prices have dropped about 10 cents and cheese in storage has increased almost 6% over last year.
Mexico is one of the biggest purchasers of dairy products from the US, but it is actively seeking other sources of supply because, well, would you be comfortable dealing with a merchant who called you a drug-running murdering rapist? It has cut it’s purchases of nonfat dry milk from the US by around 20%, and is getting it from Canada and the EU.
Throwing a monkey wrench into the works is NAFTA, which the administration is supposedly renegotiating. Does anyone except me remember that the Ag Secretary, Perdue, was proudly claiming that the administration was going to renegotiate NAFTA in just three weeks back in early May? Sigh… I try to keep politics out of this, but it’s hard sometimes.
The end result of all of this is that the future for the dairy industry doesn’t look very good. Between over production, declining demand, declining exports, well, right now it looks like 2018 is going to see milk prices dropping by at least $1/cwt, down to the $15.50 range, and they could even get lower than that.
Wild Pig Population On The Rise: Wild pigs are a huge problem. It’s estimated that there are 6 to 11 million wild pigs running around out there, and according to the National Feral Swine Damage Management Program they are responsible for up to $1.5 billion in damage every year.
They’re trying to get approval for a poison based on sodium nitrate called “Hoggone” which would apparently be placed out in the field in “a species-specific feeder”.
The problem with that kind of thing is, of course, that other animals other than that target species often consume the poison because these “species-specific feeders” often aren’t all that specific. Then there are problems with poison residue left in the carcass being consumed by predators and scavengers. And if you read the article tagged up there you’ll see that some of the experts don’t think poisoning is going to do all that much to cut down the size of the population.
Can you hunt them? Hell yes. You need to check the regulations in your own area for specifics, but most states strongly encourage hunters to take wild pigs, and have few restrictions and no bag limits, and no restrictions on size, gender, no specific season.
Can you eat ’em? Ah, well… Here’s where I get a bit nervous. A lot of DNRs encourage people to eat them. But that’s because they hope you’ll go out and shoot a lot of the buggers. I know people who wax poetic about the joys of eating wild pig. Me? I wouldn’t touch one. They carry a lot of diseases, many of which are infectious to humans and pretty nasty. A lot of them are infested with parasites… No, I wouldn’t eat one.
Cranberry Glut: We are growing way, waytoo many cranberries. We have so many cranberries already in storage that even if we’d lost the entire 2017 crop, we still would have had a surplus.
The Cranberry Marketing Committee is trying to get USDA to issue a marketing order that would require cranberry growers to produce 25% less cranberries than market demand.
The problem with cranberries is that except for the holiday season, there is really little demand for them. Despite efforts by marketing companies to boost demand, consumption of cranberries in any form has been shrinking. Cranberries, at least by themselves, just don’t taste very good. They are so sour and so bitter on their own that they are virtually inedible unless you add a huge amount of sugar to them, or use them only in very small quantities as a flavoring agent.
What The Heck Is Actually In That Stuff? You might like to think that manufacturers are required to list the ingredients in a product on the label, but there are all kinds of loopholes in labeling regulations that let them refuse to tell us what exactly is in the products we use. But California has passed new legislation that will lift the veil from at least one category of products, cleaning chemicals. When you see that term listed, it means that chemicals have been added to make the product smell nice. But what exactly is “fragrance”, or the ever popular “cleaning agents” that are listed on the labels? Turns out “fragrance” can contain one or more of thousands of different chemicals, some of which, it seems, are highly toxic, and even are known to be carcinogens. Some labels don’t tell you anything at all. This will will help a bit, but the law doesn’t really go far enough. It only covers cleaning products, for one thing.
Note: The article at Mother Jones that I’ve linked to here seems to be focused on fragrance for some reason, while the bill itself (yes, I’ve read the thing) does not seem to be restricted to chemicals added for fragrance alone. Fragrance is specifically mentioned in the bill, yes, but the bill seems to cover all chemicals in a product not just those used as fragrances.
I haven’t done this in a while, so let’s see what’s going on out in the farming world.
Butter Tumbles In Europe: Wholesale butter prices have plummeted by almost 10% from September in the EU, and have dropped by 20% overall from the high point. The market for butter and butterfat was the only thing that was driving improved farmgate milk prices in the EU. There was a very modest reduction in milk production, but that quickly reversed as milk prices began to improve, and from what I’ve been seeing milk production is on the rise once again.
Butter prices in the US dropped a bit, but are still pretty strong, about 20% or so higher than they were a year ago.
I’ve been hearing the price on powdered skim milk in the EU has dropped precipitously because they can’t get rid of the stuff.
Basically it looks like a return to the old boom/bust cycle. As soon as prices start to get even a tiny bit better, dairy farms begin to ramp up production, glutting the market with product, and pushing the prices back down again.
Sargento Expansion: The company is expanding again locally. It’s adding another 40,000 sq. feet to it’s facility here in Hilbert after a major 70,000 sq. foot expansion just a year ago, and will be adding another 150 jobs here. Sargento is privately owned, employs about 2,000 people, and produces cheese, snacks, sauces and ingredients for the food industry. It had net sales of well over $1 billion last year. Starting wages for most jobs are going to be in the $18/hr range I’ve been told.
This situation has been going on ever since Monsanto and it’s partner in this, BASF, brought their dicamba blend herbicides to market to use with Monsanto’s dicamba resistant soybeans. Dicamba has always had a problem with volatility and drifting, meaning the product goes into vapor form very easily and can drift far beyond the point of application. These new formulations were supposed to cure that problem, but the problem with drift seems to still be a serious issue. Ever since these products came to market there have been reports of tens of thousands of acres of crops and ornamental plantings being killed or damaged by the herbicide.
Both companies have been blaming everything but their products for the problems. Arkansas banned Monsanto’s version of the herbicide and only BASF’s was permitted for use in the state, and the reported damage is so bad some states are thinking of banning the product completely. Monsanto is currently suing Arkansas over the ban. Monsanto is also criticizing scientists who are coming forward to point out problems with the product that date back to the first tests of the dicamba blends, and claim that the company’s testing of the product was seriously flawed and failed to point out the dangers of the herbicide.
Now BASF is claiming that the damage is because farmers have been using illegal forms of dicamba, and not it’s product at all. The company claims that it only sold about half the amount herbicide that would be needed to cover the acreage that was actually sprayed.
The whole thing is a complete mess, with lawsuits either in the works or already heading for the courts, lots of finger pointing, bizarre conspiracy theories, and even one murder attributed to the issue.
Not So Great Pumpkin Controversy: If you’re the FDA, a squash is a squash is a pumpkin. Its all pretty much the same. So that orangey brown gunk you dump out of that can to make your pumpkin pie isn’t really, well, pumpkin. Pumpkin is Cucurbita pepo while what you’re mostly getting in that can is Cucurbita maxima, a different variety of squash. The problem is that real pumpkin doesn’t really work very well for a lot of the things we eat, like pie.
Personally I can’t stand the stuff, the pumpkin pie fillings and all that. I love squash. There’s nothing better than a slow roasted butternut or acorn squash with a bit of, oh, apple baked with it, a little brown sugar, some butter, a touch of salt. It is amazingly good. But pumpkin? No thanks. I’ll pass on that pumpkin pie and head straight for the mincemeat. Although come to think of it mincemeat doesn’t really have meat in it either any more, does it?
And don’t get me started on the abomination that is “pumpkin spice”.
That’s it for now. Well, actually there’s probably more but I’m getting bored and MrsGF is making deep dish apple pie and I need to go peel apples.
As always, comments are welcome or you can email me at email@example.com
In the last Farm Catch Up I talked a bit about the herbicide dicamba and noted that Arkansas regulators had already banned Monsanto’s brand Xtendimax of herbicide blend that contained the product and were considering a ban on the other one that was approved for use with Monsanto’s Xtend line of seeds, Engenia. “Procedural irregularities” prevented the Arkansas State Plant Board from passing an emergency ban on June 20, but I should have waited a couple of days because on June 23 ASPB passed a 120 day emergency order banning in-crop use of dicamba.
Someone pointed out to me that a lot of my readers aren’t in the agriculture business and may not know what the whole problem is, and that it would be a good idea to give a better explanation of what’s going on and why this is so important to so many people. So here goes
That’s where it all starts, of course: super weeds, the ones that have been developing resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in herbicides like RoundUp. Everyone knew that as soon as glyphosate and the GM crops developed to work with it were released, weeds would begin to evolve resistance to the herbicide. That’s just the way nature works. Guidelines for usage that would help to prevent this, or at least slow it down, were developed even before the products were released for general sale. But everyone knew it was just a matter of time before “super weeds” started to pop up and spread. The fact that the guidelines and safeguards were largely ignored didn’t help much, either.
So now we’re faced with glyphosate resistant weeds that are spreading all across the country. So a new magic bullet needed to be found, and they picked dicamba.
Dicamba has been around for a long time. It was first discovered back in 1942 and has been used to control brush, legumes and cacti. It was also used along fence lines and roads to control brush. Some formulations have been used for weed control on lawns, golf courses, etc. for decades as well. It was never used on crops because it was highly toxic to commercial crops.
Dicamba has some serious issues, not the least of which is it’s tendency to drift over large areas beyond the treatment area.
Monsanto decided that dicamba was an excellent solution to the problem of weeds that were resistant to glyphosate, and developed it’s Xtend soybean plant, which could tolerate both glyphosate and dicamba. It developed a new formulation containing both glyphosate and dicamba.
Monsanto developed what was supposed to be a complete system, it’s new GM soybean coupled with the new formulation of glyphosate and dicamba. The new formulation was supposed to cure the problems dicamba had with easy volatility and wide spread drifting. The company claimed that if used according to its guidelines and with the proper equipment, the issues with the herbicide would be eliminated.
Well, there was one big problem right off the bat. Monsanto started to sell the GM seed before the government had approved the use of it’s new herbicide blend. This led some farmers to dump dicamba on their fields even though the government had not yet approved any form of dicamba for use on crops. Without the special low volatility formulation and without using the proper equipment, dicamba spread widely, damaging or destroying tens of thousands of acres of non-Xtend soybeans, it is claimed. Oh, and somebody got shot and killed over it, too. A heated argument between farmers over alleged damage to crops ended up with someone getting killed.
Well, the new formulation of herbicide is now approved, and things don’t seem to be doing much better for either Monsanto or the other company that makes the new herbicide. There are reports popping up all over the place that the new herbicide, even when used exactly according to the recommendations, is drifting all over the place. In one case it’s alleged that it drifted more than a mile and a half. In Arkansas alone there have been around 250 reports of damage caused by herbicide drift.
As noted at the beginning of this, Arkansas has already instituted a ban on Monsanto’s formula, and the government is now issuing an outright ban on all dicamba use on cropland because of all the damage reports.
The whole thing is a real mess at the moment. Lots of finger pointing, lots of accusations, even conspiracy theories. I heard one farmer claim that the drift problem is deliberate. He claims that the company knew this was going to happen, wanted it to happen, because it would force farmers to buy the GM seed from the company because even if you didn’t use the new herbicide, drift from neighboring farms that did would wipe out your crop unless you used their beans.
I haven’t seen reports from other states about this situation. If I do I’ll pass them along. Right now it’s a huge mess and the only people who are going to be profiting from any of this seems to be the lawyers.
Farmers in 10 states can join a possible class action lawsuit against Monsanto over the illegal use of dicamba that damaged their crops because of tine introduction of the company’s Xtend line of GM crops that are immune to the herbicide. AgWeb has a story about it here if you want to take a peek.
The situation is a bit complicated so let me explain what’s going on.
A lot of weeds are becoming resistant to RoundUp and its generic equivalents. Dicamba is an herbicide that has been in use for quite a while already to fight broadleaf weeds, but it wasn’t used in this type of application because it was also toxic to the crops until Monsanto came out with it’s Xtend line which is resistant to it as well as glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp. Monsanto’s plan was to market Xtend seeds along with a new herbicide that blended dicamba with glyphosate in order to deal with weeds that were resistant to glyphosate alone.
The problem comes in because Monsanto started selling the Xtend seed before the new herbicide blend was approved for use by the government.
This is an important point. Dicamba is nasty stuff to work with. It vaporizes very easily while it is being applied, and the vapors can drift for long distances even on a relatively calm day, killing or damaging plants in fields far beyond the field being sprayed. The new herbicide blend contained dicamba in a form that was not as volatile and was safer to use as long as it was applied correctly with the right equipment. The new blend would help to prevent the herbicide drifting.
Even though the new herbicide wasn’t available, Monsanto started selling Xtend seed anyway. And you can see what’s coming, can’t you?
That’s right; now that they had a dicamba resistant seed, some growers drenched their fields with regular dicamba, ignored the application warnings and restrictions, and ended up with herbicide drifting all over the place causing damage to crops in the adjacent fields of other farmers. I’ve heard estimates that the amount of damage caused by drift is as high as 200,000 acres.
Oh, at least one murder that I know of. Yeah. Seriously. They actually shot someone over herbicide drift.
So, as the headline asks, whose fault is it?
The suit claims it’s Monsanto’s fault. They should not have released the new seeds into the market until the new herbicide designed to go with it was ready to go as well. They should have known that some growers would abuse the system and use dicamba herbicides off-label and illegally as soon as they had their hot little hands on the new seeds.
Monsanto says wait just a minute, we didn’t spray the stuff. We warned them not to, and to wait until the new herbicide was ready to go. It’s their fault, not ours.
The other side counters that any rational person should have realized that if the seed was put on sale without the herbicide some growers would use the unapproved and dangerous form of the herbicide…
And so it goes around, and around, and around. This will probably be lurching through the court system for years…
So what is the answer to that question up there? Whose fault is it?
This is one of those situations where I think both sides have a valid point. As Monsanto claims, it did not do the spraying. It’s recommendations for use indicated that Xtend seeds were to be used only with approved herbicides and approved application techniques. Once it sold the seed, it has no control over what the growers do afterwards.
On the other hand, why put seed up for sale where the primary benefit of using it is to enable the use of a herbicide that was not yet legal to use? Monsanto knew there was no reason to buy the new seed unless the growers were going to make use of the seeds capability of withstanding dicamba…
What do I think about all of this? My issues with the whole thing are at a more fundamental level. I think we’ve become locked into methods of food production that are basically unsustainable over the long haul.
And we know that. We know that eventually herbicides are going to fail. They just are. We can’t keep up this endless cycle of having to develop new and ever more toxic herbicides as the old ones fail. It’s the same with insect control. The insect population eventually becomes resistant, and we have to start all over again. BT corn is a good example of this as the insects that are controlled by BT become resistant and begin to spread, and within a few more years we are going to have a root worm problem that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was before BT corn was introduced.
Side Note: I’m going to start trying to move away from talking about agriculture so much in the future. I’m not involved in the business any more, sold the farm a couple of years ago, so why do I still go babbling on and on and on about it when there are other things I’m interested in?
But then I’ve told myself that before and I keep coming back to it for some reason. Oh, well.
I’m going to try to push this onto other things I’m interested in; amateur radio and electronics, amateur astronomy, building furniture and fiddling with wood, photography…
This was never intended to be focused on a single topic in the first place, so I’m going to try to get back to that.
Now, the reason this article has popped up (and I’m sure you will see others in the ag press similar to this in the future) is that there are a few new GM crops coming on-line now, modified to work with a couple of new blends of herbicides in an effort to deal with increasing weed resistance to glycophase. The herbicides aren’t really new, though. They are simply blends of previously existing herbicides with glycophase. They incorporate either 2,4-D or dicamba, both of which have been around for decades already. The only thing new about the system is the GM crops that have been engineered to tolerate 2,4-D and/or dicamba.
And they aren’t going to work any better than glycophase alone did. At least not in the long run. Sooner or later weeds will eventually develop resistance to these new blends as well, and we’ll be right back where we are now. In fact, there is already resistance to both of those herbicides “out in the wild” so to speak, because both have been in use for some time.
We have allowed ourselves to become dependent upon a system of weed control that we know is eventually going to fail. So, if we already know that these reformulated mixes are going to eventually fail, why are we bothering with them at at all?
Part of the reason this isn’t going to change any time soon is that over the last few decades we have adopted almost across the board farming techniques that make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to change.
How did we do it in the “good old days”? Well, like this:
Now, if this text editor has managed to put the image in the right place, that is an old Oliver 70 with it’s optional corn cultivator rig. I used to drive one of those when I was a kid. For hours. And hours. And hours. And hours. And hours. And.. Well, you get the idea.
It was boring, tedious, took huge amounts of time, huge amounts of fuel. And with how expensive fuel is these days, how expensive labor is, if you can even find labor, how time consuming it is… Well, it isn’t surprising that the agricultural industry has always been looking for something, anything, to try to eliminate weeds that doesn’t involve so much time, labor and expense.
But some alternative to this never ending cycle of herbicide failures is going to have to be found. We’re running out of options. No matter what kind of chemical intervention we may come up with, sooner or later nature will figure out a loophole to work around it because that’s just how nature works.
I wish I could tell you that there is a solution to this, but there isn’t. People are experimenting, yes. But so far all of the efforts I’ve seen in trying to get out of this dependency on herbicides have involved techniques that simply can’t be scaled up. I’ve seen flame throwers to burn weeds, steamers to steam weeds, “cookers” that scoop up soil and literally cook it to kill weed seeds… All of them are tedious, time consuming, and worst of all, very energy hungry.
There are some new robotics and AI technologies that are looking promising. I suspect that may be one possible solution; machines that do the cultivation for you using cameras, LIDAR, GPS to guide them. Even systems that can identify weeds by sight and mechanically remove them, leaving the desired plants alone.
But those are years away, maybe decades. But who knows? Maybe there is some kind of “magic bullet” out there. Ah, well, no, there isn’t, but we keep looking for one, don’t we?