by Boyce Upholt | December 10, 2018
Monsanto’s new herbicide was supposed to save U.S. farmers from financial ruin. Instead, it upended the agriculture industry, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a struggle for survival.
Mike Wallace sat in his pickup truck on a dusty back road near his farm outside Leachville, Arkansas, typing impatiently into his cell phone. “I’m waiting on you,” he wrote. “You coming?” It was hot for late October. The rows of soybeans, cotton, and corn, which just days ago had spread across much of the region, were largely gone, replaced by dry, flat dirt. The 2016 harvesting season was nearly over. A minute passed, and Wallace typed another message, sounding slightly triumphant. “Looks like you don’t have much to say now.
Wallace, 55, was a prominent figure in the Arkansas Delta farming community. His 5,000-acre farm was large, although the yield on that year’s soybean crop hadn’t been as successful as he had expected. Wallace believed he knew why his crops had failed, and it had nothing to do with the sun or the rain or the decisions he had made about when to put his seeds in the ground. Instead, he blamed a 26-year-old farmhand named Curtis Jones for illegally spraying dicamba, a controversial weed killer, on a neighboring farm. Wallace believed the dicamba had drifted onto his fields and damaged almost half of his soybean crop, costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It wasn’t the first time this had occurred. The previous year, dicamba from another farm had also drifted onto Wallace’s fields, causing the leaves of his soybeans to pucker into ugly cups fringed with white fuzz. He complained to the Arkansas State Plant Board, which oversees such disputes. The agency fined Wallace’s neighbor, but Wallace was never compensated for the lost revenue. So when Wallace was hit again the next season, he decided he’d had enough. He called Jones and proposed that they meet to settle things in person. Wallace threatened to “whip [my] ass,” Jones later said.
Moments after Wallace sent his last text message, Jones arrived in his own pickup. As soon as he stepped out of the truck, Jones later told police, Wallace charged at him, arms flailing. He was on Jones within seconds, pinning him against the rear driver’s side door. As they scuffled, Jones pulled a .32 caliber semiautomatic pistol from his back pocket and began to fire. The bullets hit Wallace in his right shoulder and arm, his chest, and abdomen. Jones continued firing until the clip was empty—seven shots in all. One bullet entered Wallace’s back, above his left buttocks. Just 91 seconds after Wallace’s last text message, Jones was on the phone with police to report that he’d shot a man. Wallace lay in the dirt, bleeding to death.
Wallace’s death roiled the Arkansas Delta farming community. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral; the line of mourners who came to pay their respects stretched across the parking lot of the local Baptist church and into the pastor’s yard. At his family’s request, a ring of tractors stood vigil around the perimeter of the graveyard as Wallace’s body was laid to rest. As unsettling as Wallace’s death was, it is symptomatic of a larger conflict over farming practices that is coursing throughout the Arkansas Delta and across the country. Dicamba, the weed killer at the center of the dispute between Wallace and Jones, has become a lightning rod for controversy.
Dicamba is actually quite an old herbicide, first approved for use on U.S. farms in 1962; by the early 2000s, it was commonly used in Arkansas for wiping out weeds during the off-season, before planting began. What is new is genetic resistance: In 2015, the bio-agricultural giant Monsanto released genetically engineered seeds that can survive dicamba’s deadly effects. This became one of the most successful product launches in the company’s 117-year history; by 2017, the new seeds were planted across 25 million acres, making up a quarter of the nation’s total soybeans. To farmers desperate for a way to ensure their economic survival, dicamba is seen as a godsend.
Yet the chemical and its effects have also proved highly contentious. During the 2017 growing season, farmers across the country, from North Dakota and Ohio to Louisiana and West Virginia, filed more than 2,700 complaints with state agriculture agencies, stating that dicamba damaged their crops—3.6 million acres of soybeans in total, an overwhelming and unprecedented amount. “I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around the scale,” one Mississippi scientist told the Delta Farm Press, after surveying local fields. Farmers in at least ten states have filed lawsuits against Monsanto over the company’s decision to release what they consider a flawed product. A class-action suit, combining many of these cases, is currently being considered in federal court.
The issue isn’t really dicamba itself, Mike Wallace’s son Bradley told me—it’s something called “chemical trespass.” If a farmer sprays a chemical on his own land, that’s his business. The problem arises when those chemicals refuse to stay put—spreading their toxic effects into unintended territory. Across the country, 70 million pounds of pesticides drift from farms each year.
In the past, farmers accepted drift as a cost of doing business. If chemicals inadvertently spread from one plot of land to another, farmers would typically settle any losses amicably through a handshake deal. But with Monsanto’s new products suddenly being sprayed at a massive scale, drift is now sparking conflicts—and violence. The controversy over dicamba reveals the fault lines of modern agriculture, which is increasingly built atop a precarious framework of chemistry. It also reveals who holds the power. The new seed-and-chemical combination serves as a kind of protection racket, initiated by Monsanto: Pay to use dicamba-resistant soybeans, or you may lose your crop and your livelihood.
Arkansas has been at the epicenter of the controversy. The local geography makes farms particularly vulnerable to dicamba damage. Soybeans and cotton are densely planted in the Delta, and the heat increases the likelihood that the herbicide will spread to neighboring fields. In 2017, the state plant board investigated nearly 1,000 complaints of chemical-trespass-related dicamba damage, which covered 900,000 acres. This June, the plant board declared Arkansas’ soybean industry in “a state of emergency.”
When I visited Arkansas this summer, in the midst of the growing season, farmers told me that the use of dicamba had become one of the most heated issues they’d ever experienced, one that has rewritten the agriculture community’s traditional mores. “Farmers spraying with total disregard for their neighbor?” said David Wildy, whose family has been farming in the Delta for four generations, and whose farm sits close to Wallace’s land. “I’m totally shocked, because I thought pretty much in general the agriculture community was different than that. That’s not the way I was raised.”
The argument has moved online, with some farmers posting photos of damaged crops, and others coming to dicamba’s defense, each side disparaging the other’s intelligence, ability, and sense of right and wrong. Outside of Bassett, Arkansas, I drove past a sign in a field that read, defiantly, farmers need dicamba. The controversy has divided small, seemingly placid communities, pitting farmer against farmer, neighbor against neighbor. Mike Wallace was a high-profile casualty of the dicamba wars, but he may not be its last. “People are just—they’re just gone batshit crazy,” another prominent Delta farmer, Tom Burnham, told me. “I wouldn’t dare go out and say there won’t be more violence.”
In many ways, the current dispute over dicamba is an inevitable result of the pressures faced by American row-crop farmers. Brazil’s agriculture industry has modernized, and it now rivals America as the world’s top soybean supplier; Donald Trump’s trade war with China, which placed heavy tariffs on American farm products, has cut off many farmers’ biggest customer. The price for soybeans has fallen more than 40 percent since 2012, and American farmers are taking on increasing amounts of debt. “We just haven’t had any of those really good years in the past ten where we can say, ‘Hey, I’m breathing pretty good now,’” said Tim Sullivan, a farmer in Mississippi County, Arkansas.
In the early twentieth century, most American farms were small—less than 200 acres, on average—and grew a variety of crops. But through the second half of the century, farms began to specialize in single crops, grown in ever-larger amounts. By the Cold War, the industry had embraced a new motto: “Get big or get out,” as Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz put it during his tenure in the 1970s. In an attempt to corner the global food market, the U.S. government encouraged farmers to buy more land, and to harness the power of chemistry—especially newly developed pesticides and fertilizers—to make sure that land yielded as much food as possible.
The Arkansas Delta is a great place to go very, very big. It’s hot and humid, with a long growing season. Even better is the soil, with lowlands made of rich silt deposited by the Mississippi River over thousands of years. When white settlers arrived in the early nineteenth century, the region was a dense tangle of swamps, and thickets of wetland forest remained through the middle of the twentieth century. By 1980, when Wallace began farming here, the Delta had become an endless blanket of precisely leveled fields. Today, the region is one of the nation’s leading producers of soybeans. The average farm in Mississippi County, where Wallace lived, is nearly 1,400 acres, more than three times the national average.
The modern era of agribusiness has placed immense economic pressure on farmers. Tending to a massive farm requires a huge investment in manpower and equipment—GPS-rigged tractors, the latest genetically modified seeds, chemicals for killing bugs and weeds, fertilizers to replenish exhausted soils. Farmers like Wallace typically take out millions of dollars in loans each year in order to cover their operating costs. To stay afloat, therefore, farmers need to squeeze every last cent that they can out of their land. A few surprises—an unexpected dry season or a change in global crop prices—can send a farmer tumbling into bankruptcy. Between 1985 and 1995, 11,000 farmers abandoned the Arkansas Delta, unable to shoulder the financial burden. Home to 235,000 farms in 1935, the region now has fewer than 50,000. Farmers like to see themselves as good, neighborly people. But all the pressure has meant that, increasingly, they have had to look out for themselves. “This is not a team sport,” Tom Burnham told me. “It’s probably the most individual sport there is
For these reasons, farmers in Arkansas still remember 1996 as a year of miracles. That spring, when the first Roundup Ready soybeans sprouted, it was as if the age-old problem of weeds had been solved. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is a near-universal plant killer. But Monsanto had genetically altered its seeds so that they could resist the herbicide’s effects. When Roundup was sprayed on a field, the Roundup Ready soybeans were the only things that survived. “I couldn’t believe what it could do,” David Wildy said. “It was a wonderful product.”
The technological breakthrough led to a fundamental shift in American farming practices. Before, most herbicides were sprayed early in the season, prior to a crop emerging from the soil. With Roundup Ready seeds, however, herbicides could be sprayed during the growing season, “over the top” of the crops. This meant that invasive weeds could be attacked not just once, but multiple times in the course of the season. It also meant that the volume of chemicals sprayed rose dramatically; since Roundup Ready’s introduction, global glyphosate use has increased 15-fold. In America, 94 percent of the nation’s soybeans are genetically engineered to resist glyphosate or other herbicides. The numbers for corn and cotton are similar.
Roundup has not been without controversy. This summer, a California jury awarded nearly $300 million to a groundskeeper who blamed his cancer on the chemical. (In October, a judge reduced the amount to $79 million.) Even for farmers, its miracle had shortcomings. The first problem was chemical trespass. After a farmer sprayed glyphosate on his crops, the wind would pick it up and carry it to nearby fields, killing crops that were not genetically engineered to withstand exposure to the chemical. In 2010, Steve Smith, the director of agriculture for an Indiana-based tomato processor, testified to Congress that over the previous four seasons, the company’s growers had lost more than $1 million worth of crops due to glyphosate drift. It was a preview in miniature of the problems farmers have experienced with dicamba.
The other trouble with Roundup was that, as powerful as it was, the weeds proved stronger. “Monsanto told us there was no way that we would ever see any plant become resistant,” Wildy told me. “They went through the whole plant physiology and said there’s no way that this plant can ever become resistant. Well, it did.” In 2000, just four years after farmers began spraying Roundup on their fields, mare’s tail became the first common U.S. weed to develop a resistance to glyphosate. Since then, the number of resistant weed species has climbed at an alarming rate. Palmer amaranth, a type of pigweed, developed resistance by 2005 and quickly became the most hated species of vegetation in Arkansas and across the American South. A single pigweed plant can produce 500,000 seedlings, making it extremely difficult to keep in check. The weed climbs high above row crops, blocking out the sun. Studies have shown that an invasion of pigweed can reduce a farmer’s yields by 79 percent. “The pigweed’s smarter than we are, it seems,” Wildy said. “It’s changing faster than we can develop technology or chemistry to control the thing. And it’s bad enough that it can take us out of business.”
Monsanto’s Roundup revolution gave birth to this superweed—but it also created an opportunity to profit. The company knew that if it could develop a new seed that could survive a different type of herbicide—one to which weeds were not yet resistant—it would be a blockbuster. In 2005, the path forward became clear. Scientists from the University of Nebraska approached Monsanto with the news that they had discovered what could be the next big thing in agriculture: a bacterial gene for dicamba resistance that could be imported into plants.
Dicamba kills plants by mimicking auxin, a growth hormone; plants that are exposed to dicamba literally grow themselves to death, their cells reproducing so quickly that they cannot absorb enough nutrients to sustain themselves. Dicamba is especially deadly to broadleaf plants such as cotton and soybeans. It is also a particularly volatile chemical, which means it easily evaporates after spraying and can be carried by the wind—often in unpredictable directions—making it far more drift-prone than glyphosate. One farmer told me its effects were like a bomb: You see a blast radius of damage surrounding the point where it was sprayed. Over the years, farmers learned that dicamba was useful so long as it was managed carefully—sprayed early, before crops emerged, to kill off-season weeds, or along fencerows and in pastures. But it was almost never used near soybeans or cotton or other delicate plants—and it was illegal to spray over the top, once the plants began to emerge from the soil.
Monsanto’s development of dicamba-resistant seeds was therefore met with worry. “The widespread use of dicamba is incompatible with Midwestern agriculture,” Steve Smith, the tomato processing official, declared in his 2010 congressional testimony. Its volatility, he said, would simply doom crops like peaches or vegetables or pecans—anything, really, besides the resistant beans.
As it had done with Roundup, Monsanto planned to develop a line of dicamba-resistant seeds and a matching dicamba-based herbicide. But it needed to clear two hurdles before these products could be released commercially: The Department of Agriculture had to approve the seeds for sale, and the Environmental Protection Agency had to sign off on the company’s herbicide, so that farmers could legally spray it over the top of their crops.
Monsanto initially said that it would not release its new products until both the seeds and the herbicide were approved. After the Department of Agriculture approved a line of dicamba-resistant cotton seeds in January 2015, however, Monsanto announced a limited release, enough seeds to cover a half-million acres. The seeds had other new genetic traits that Monsanto was eager to share with the world, the company said. And because the EPA had not yet approved the spraying of dicamba, Monsanto offered farmers a rebate. The seeds sold out.
Early that season, cotton farmers began to complain of dicamba damage. In Arkansas, the plant board determined that in 14 cases, crops had been affected by exposure to the chemical. Two of those cases were against a farmer named Lonnie Gibson. In May 2015, an investigator, prompted by an anonymous complaint, arrived at a field where Gibson’s workers were spraying chemicals. The man in charge identified himself as Curtis Jones. He refused to sign the official paperwork that acknowledged that the field was under inspection and declined to help take samples from the spray tanks. He claimed to know nothing about what chemical was being sprayed, or even what crop was being planted. He told the investigator that she would have to wait for Gibson—but Gibson never appeared. During the delay, some of the tanks and chemical containers were removed from the scene. “Mr. Jones was not cooperative,” the investigator later wrote in her report. She eventually determined that dicamba had been sprayed illegally, and Gibson was fined. (He is currently suing the plant board, contesting that decision.)
Other farmers were more cooperative. In 2015, when Mike Wallace filed his initial complaint about dicamba drift against one of his neighbors, a farmer named Donald Masters, Masters admitted to his crime. He tried to abide by the old code: He told the plant board that he had paid another neighbor whose crops were harmed, and was willing to pay Wallace, too—until Wallace made unreasonable demands. “I damaged at least 10 acres of his [soybeans],” Masters said in his testimony to the plant board, “but he asked me [for] $100,000 for his cotton. Well, his cotton wasn’t damaged.”
Masters’s testimony included an interesting admission. He said he had purchased the dicamba-resistant cotton seeds because a Monsanto sales representative “pretty well assured” him that the EPA would approve the chemical for spraying. Some farmers contend that such promises were part of an official strategy—that Monsanto wanted
dicamba to be illegally sprayed. This would allow the company to “test the water to see what kind of repercussions” would result from dicamba hitting untargeted fields, as one group of farmers has alleged in a lawsuit. Monsanto has repeatedly denied these charges.
Whatever the intentions, it was clear that the damage did not faze Monsanto. In October 2015, as the cotton harvest was coming in, Monsanto officials announced that dicamba-resistant soybeans, recently approved by the USDA, would go on sale too. The seeds flew off store shelves. According to Monsanto’s estimates, four million acres of dicamba-resistant crops were planted in 2016—five times more than in 2015. The company’s latest product was looking like a success.
Spraying dicamba remained illegal, however. Monsanto expected that its new dicamba-based herbicide would be on the market by the 2016 season, but “we got delayed in Washington, D.C., with the EPA,” said Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president of global strategy, who was recently named the general counsel for parent company Bayer’s U.S. operations; the German pharmaceutical giant purchased Monsanto this summer. (The delay may have been due in part to the nearly 17,000 public comments the EPA was sifting through as part of the approval process.) Penalties for illegally spraying dicamba were paltry, though—often little more than $1,000. So for farmers who had purchased Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant seeds, the advantages of illegally spraying dicamba far outweighed the fines that the government might impose or the anger of their neighbors. As an Arkansas plant board official told The Wall Street Journal in 2016, “The farmers are flat out telling us that ‘we’ll write you a check.’”
In November 2016, less than a week after Mike Wallace’s funeral, the EPA finally approved Monsanto’s dicamba-based herbicide, XtendiMax. (Two similar formulations from other companies were approved shortly thereafter.) Monsanto said that XtendiMax was approximately 90 percent less prone to drift than earlier formulations. In theory, this should have ended the controversy over dicamba. Farmers would finally be able to spray dicamba legally, and the problem of drift would, for the most part, be solved.
As the spring 2017 growing season got underway, however, it became clear that dicamba damage remained out of control, triggering the current spate of lawsuits and investigations by state plant boards. Some experts who study and regulate the industry believe the extent of the damage could be as much as ten times higher than the 3.6 million acres officially reported. Crop insurance does not cover damage by herbicides, so farmers have little incentive to file complaints and potentially start neighbor-versus-neighbor disputes.
Meanwhile, independent studies have suggested that dicamba is still highly prone to drift; the XtendiMax formulation can remain in the air for 36 hours after spraying. Monsanto has argued that these tests are cursory and small-scale compared to its own, and that most dicamba damage has been caused by farmers failing to apply the herbicide correctly. Dicamba acts differently from glyphosate, which farmers are more familiar with. “It takes different application methods and a focus that growers and applicators need to learn,” Partridge said. “There’s a learning curve here.”
Critics have also accused the EPA of failing to provide adequate oversight. As it weighed whether to approve XtendiMax, the agency only considered data submitted directly by Monsanto itself, which has come under fire in the past for attempting to influence its scientists’ findings. The company would not allow universities to conduct independent tests on XtendiMax prior to the product’s EPA approval. The company believed that such tests would take too long and further delay EPA approval at a time when farmers needed the chemical. “The decision was made—rather than delay a full year to permit academic testing, let’s get it registered with the EPA,” Partridge said. “Let’s get the product in the marketplace so we don’t have two years of the seed with-out the chemistry.”
Critics, however, argue that the company’s real worry was the potential for negative results, which could squash Monsanto’s hopes for EPA approval of its blockbuster new product. This is a key component in many of the lawsuits against Monsanto. Some scientists now suggest the EPA’s chemical registration process needs to be updated to incorporate more extensive independent testing. “The problems that occurred in 2017 speak for themselves,” the Weed Science Society of America wrote in a recent report. “More funding for public research is needed. The true cost of the dicamba-resistant crop technology is not being reflected in the price.”
In response to the reports of dicamba drift that have flooded state agencies, Monsanto touted all the steps it had taken to address the problem: The company released a new app that detects problematic weather and distributed a million spray nozzles to farmers, free of charge; across the country, 96,000 farmers enrolled in a training program that is a new legal requirement for anyone who buys or sprays XtendiMax. The company also set up a phone line for farmers to report potential cases of crop damage. Chemical drift, Partridge argued, is less extensive per acre sprayed now than it was in 1996, when Roundup Ready was first released—it’s just that dicamba was adopted so much more rapidly than Roundup that the effects have been more obvious. (When I asked for drift data from 1996 to verify the claim, a Monsanto representative said the company had none.) Partridge suggested we live in a different era, too. “In 1996, when growers wanted to talk about something that they were worried about, or something they needed to learn more about, they talked about it around a four-top table in a coffee shop,” Partridge said. “And now it’s on social media, where fact and fiction can take on lives of their own very, very quickly.”
But at least part of the reason farmers have been buying Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant seeds is to protect their fields. “That’s what we’ve done,” David Wildy told me this summer. “And I hate to have to do that, but we just had to.” He’d suffered, by his own estimate, hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses over the previous two seasons. “We couldn’t have that kind of damage again,” he said. Monsanto denies that it wants a product that is prone to drift, but the fact that the herbicide can spread easily offers a clear advantage to the company. Once one local farmer adopts the technology, his neighbors have little choice but to do the same.
My drives across Arkansas this summer were often beautiful. The sky, which stretched endlessly above the flat, lush fields, flared with clouds at sunset. But once farmers taught me how to identify dicamba damage, I began to see the landscape differently, as a slow apocalypse revealed itself in small, grim details. At one lake I drove past, the cypress trees—the last remnants of the wetlands that once dominated the region—bristled with brown needles. At a garden stand, the flowers’ leaves curled inward, a classic sign of dicamba’s effects. Unlike soybean farmers, backyard gardeners have no defensive choice; there is no engineered seed to plant.
A beekeeper who had kept hives in Mississippi County for decades told me he’d had to relocate them; the bees were struggling to produce honey. The culprit, he was almost certain, was the dicamba-induced death of the few stands of wild plants amid the monoculture, essential habitat for pollinators.
Near Wilson, Arkansas, I met with Reggie Cullom, a local doctor who had bought a patch of land because he loved its groves of pecan and oak trees. “I’m the only guy in the world who ever paid farmland prices to pick up limbs,” he said. “But it was important to me to try to save the trees.” Now, though, trees that yielded a ton of pecans each season are struggling to produce just 300 pounds, he said. As we drove in Cullom’s truck across his property, he pointed to the treetops, where the leaves were yellowed. Along the edge of the property, the leaves on young oak trees shriveled inward.
Cullom’s neighbor, a retired farmer, saw us roll past and ambled over to chat. He got out of farming five years ago, he told me, just early enough to avoid the current dicamba craze. “We used to use dicamba years ago—but it was early in the year,” he said, and just on certain crops. “After that, it was over with.” Before Monsanto released its dicamba-resistant seeds, there was no reason for farmers to spray the herbicide throughout the growing season. Now, he said, he’d like to eat his own vegetables, grow his own fruit—but he can’t. It’s a disorienting development. “I got to thinking one day: What’s going on? What’s changed since I was farming?”
For today’s farmers, the modern agriculture business can feel like an arms race, in which the only choice is to embrace the latest genetically engineered seeds and the chemicals that go with them. Just as weeds developed resistance to Roundup, however, it’s inevitable that they will develop resistance to dicamba, too—and what will farmers do then? Companies like Monsanto have relied on the idea that science and technology can always be harnessed to overcome whatever challenges the environment presents farmers. But there may be limits to what science can achieve. No new weed-killing chemical has been identified since 1992—which is why chemical companies are returning to older, problematic herbicides like dicamba. Meanwhile, the plants continue to evolve. Jason Norsworthy, an agronomist at the University of Arkansas, told me some farmers are likely to run out of chemical options soon. “I wish I could tell you the future looks bright, ten years, 15 years from now,” he said, “but it doesn’t.”
Last summer, as complaints of dicamba drift continued to mount, the Arkansas plant board decided to take action. It announced an emergency ban on all dicamba use and was empowered by the state legislature to levy harsher fines, up to a maximum of $25,000. Some farmers objected—at a board meeting, one noted that farmers in the state had already spent more than $140 million on dicamba-resistant seeds, money that would go to waste if they couldn’t actually use dicamba. In September 2017, more than 300 Arkansas farmers signed a petition opposing the ban. (Tom Burnham, who opposes irresponsible dicamba use, helped draft the language.) They asked the plant board to allow limited use of dicamba under certain conditions. When used responsibly, they argued, dicamba is extremely effective, and the state’s ban had put local farmers at a disadvantage. “Pigweed is a major problem in Arkansas, and the state should not be the only state in the South not allowed to use dicamba,” the farmers said.
In a sign of just how contentious dicamba had become, prosecutors and defense attorneys consciously avoided mentioning the herbicide during Curtis Jones’s trial for killing Mike Wallace. There was too much baggage associated with dicamba, prosecuting attorneys told me. In December 2017, a jury convicted Jones of second-degree murder. He is currently free on bond, awaiting his appeal. (Jones works at a farm chemical store in Missouri that is owned by Lonnie Gibson. When I stopped in, I was told he was out planting watermelons; I left my phone number, but Jones never called.) That month, the Arkansas legislature also asked the plant board to reconsider the dicamba ban. In January, however, the plant board voted to extend it indefinitely.
Despite all the controversy, the new soybeans remain popular. Monsanto estimated that 50 million acres of dicamba-resistant seeds were planted in 2018, more than twice the acreage that was planted last year. And in Arkansas, despite the plant board’s ban on dicamba, it is clear that farmers aren’t heeding the prohibition. During my visit to the Delta in June, damage reports were already trickling in. Farmers drove me through their fields and pointed out the places where their soybeans’ leaves were crumpling. By season’s end, at least a million acres across the country had been hit—less than in 2017, but still an enormous amount. In October, the EPA extended its approval of dicamba for two years.
So far, Mike Wallace has been the only person to lose his life in a dicamba-related dispute, but the potential for more trouble seems palpable. There are neighbors who are no longer on speaking terms; squabbles occasionally become fistfights. When I stopped for lunch near where Gibson and Jones live, a group of farmers at a catfish shack warned me to tread carefully, given the tensions. Another farmer, who has been at the center of the debates over dicamba and has been the target of substantial ire, told me he keeps three loaded guns in his office.
Even if farmers in the Arkansas Delta manage to keep the peace, it’s clear that the controversy over dicamba has fundamentally transformed the nature of American farming. One hot and cloudless afternoon this summer, I climbed into the cab of Tim Sullivan’s pickup truck, and together we bumped along a rutted dirt road at the edge of one of his fields, examining the soybean crops. For Sullivan, checking for dicamba damage is now a daily routine during the growing season. The symptoms—the crumpled leaves, the wilting stems—are so familiar to him by now that he can spot them even while driving.
Sullivan had recently filed a complaint with the plant board and blamed one of his neighbors for the damage. He understands why someone would spray; farmers need to make a profit. “I get along with him, and just because he sprayed me, I’m not going to try to beat him up, you know?” Sullivan told me. But Sullivan also has to watch out for himself. If another farmer’s chemicals trespass on his fields, he’s going to turn them in to the authorities. The old handshake agreements by which farmers used to resolve disputes will no longer suffice. “He’s a fine old gentleman, you know,” Sullivan said of his neighbor. “But he broke the law.”