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EPA just tossed farmers a lifeline to protect crops

EPA just tossed farmers a lifeline to protect crops
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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.

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To fight them, we need the best technology available — and on Oct. 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 PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueOvernight Energy: EPA weighs tougher pollution rule for trucks | Zinke to visit California wildfire areas | EPA official indicted in Alabama Zinke to visit California to address wildfires Trump, California battle over climate and cause of fires MORE may have put it best: “It presents farmers with options.”

That’s what we need out here: As many 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.

 

Dicamba has been used safely since 1969 as an effective crop protection tool to kill broadleaves, and soybeans are a broadleaf plant. With dicamba-resistant seeds now available, it can now be used effectively on soybeans and cotton. 

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 an old 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.

Critics of dicamba say it can drift and be harmful to plants that are not specifically engineered to withstand it. But there is a simple, common sense solution: 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.

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. New technology in sprayer nozzles has also greatly reduced the risk of drift to plants that are not dicamba-resistant. To ensure this, 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.

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.

Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans, and pork on an Iowa family farm. He serves as vice-chairman and volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.