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Episode 775: The Pigweed Killer

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Episode 775: The Pigweed Killer

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Episode 775: The Pigweed Killer

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Reporter Marianne McCune just got back from the border of Arkansas and Missouri. I've been there before. It is gorgeous out there.

MARIANNE MCCUNE, BYLINE: Really gorgeous - field after field. It can look like they go all the way out to the end of the earth. It is so beautiful.

SMITH: But you were not there to sightsee. You were there because there was a murder.

MCCUNE: A murder of a cotton and soybean farmer. And this was no random murder. It wasn't about a drug deal gone bad. It wasn't a bar fight. It wasn't about love. It was about something people care about a lot in this region - weeds.

SMITH: Nasty, invasive weeds.

MCCUNE: One weed in particular. It is called pigweed. And, Robert, this thing is an ugly, horrible weed. One plant can make more than a million seeds. This thing will choke your crops. It'll spread to your neighbors' fields. And people are in a constant battle with pigweed. They rip it out of the ground. They spray it with nasty pesticides.

SMITH: And this fight with pigweed led to a real-world fight. So set the scene for us, Marianne.

MCCUNE: OK. It's October 27, 2016. A 55-year-old farmer named Mike Wallace makes a phone call. Weirdly, it's to a young man his family says he doesn't even know but who works on a farm that Mike has been having a problem with. The argument is about a pesticide that Mike thinks they're spraying. And it's a pesticide that may be killing their pigweed, but it's also killing Mike's crops. So Mike Wallace and the young farmer decide to meet up. They get in their trucks, drive to a county road between their two fields.

SMITH: Sort of neutral ground for the both of them.

MCCUNE: They start talking. Nobody knows about what. And then the younger man pulls a gun and shoots Mike Wallace in the chest.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER DOUGLAS AND TATE MCCOY'S "DEVIL RIDGE")

SMITH: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

MCCUNE: I'm Marianne McCune.

SMITH: Today on the show we are going to solve a murder mystery. Not exactly what happened - we pretty much know that - or who did it. Someone has already been charged with this crime. The mystery is why. Why would pigweed and pesticides turn neighbors so completely against each other?

MCCUNE: I went to Arkansas to find out, talked to a lot of the friends and family of Mike Wallace, spent time with the neighbors and asked the same question over and over again.

What is going on here? Why would a man get murdered over pesticide disputes?

DOUGLAS MASTERS: Money. Money. Hey, what's it about again?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Money.

DOU. MASTERS: Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: All right. I am standing on a long dirt and gravel road lined on either side by green fields, trees and some farmhouses in the distance. It is flat. The sky is blue, only a few white clouds. It is the quietest, calmest place you can imagine. And this is the spot where Mike Wallace was killed, shot and killed.

To really understand how an argument about weeds and pesticides could come to this point, to a 911 call from the road between two farmer's fields, I started with a visit to Mike Wallace's family about a half-hour drive away.

I like your Wallace Farms sign.

It has stenciled-out shapes of what they grow - corn, cotton and soybeans.

KAREN WALLACE: Yes. Uh-huh (ph). Yeah. I think Bradley had that made for his dad for Christmas. Yeah.

MCCUNE: Mike's widow Karen and their 33-year-old son Bradley are of that hardy farmer variety, squinting their eyes against the sun and wind while they keep their heads up and get their fields planted on their own without Mike.

K. WALLACE: Well, it's hard, but we're pushing through it.

MCCUNE: In their big shed, every tool is in its place, every machine well cared for. They just built the shop last year.

K. WALLACE: Bradley designed it, so little did we know that he's going to be the one to take over it.

MCCUNE: Yeah. It's beautiful.

We go inside to Karen's office to talk more about how in the world this war with pigweed led to Mike's death. The office is spare and so orderly, just a few family photos above her desk - Mike with his square jaw, buzzcut, kind of a Christopher Reeves smile.

K. WALLACE: My husband, if he was driving down the road and he saw a pigweed out there he would walk to the end of the field and get it and drag it out to the end. I mean, he was just not going to leave the pigweed in the field.

MCCUNE: Mike was not an organic farmer or anything. He also used pesticides to kill the pigweed, like most everyone around here. And in the '90s, when the first genetically modified cotton seeds came on the market, he planted those, too. Those seeds were engineered with a genetic trait that protected them from a very powerful pesticide called Roundup. And this was huge.

For the first time, the seeds allowed farmers to spray Roundup all over their cotton fields without killing the cotton itself. Imagine you see some of those pigweed plants invading, you can get out there and spray Roundup all over everything, and the pigweed dies while the cotton remains completely healthy. It was a dream.

Hi, I'm Marianne.

BRADLEY WALLACE: I'm Bradley.

MCCUNE: Nice to meet you, Bradley.

B. WALLACE: Nice to meet you.

MCCUNE: Karen's son Bradley comes in to talk and their longtime adviser and friend Dave Pierce. And Dave jumps in to try to explain how Roundup fits into the confounding story of Mike's death.

DAVE PIERCE: Roundup made a lot of people good farmers. It would kill everything in your field that didn't have the trait in it to protect it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chemistry. I mean, we depended on it for years and years. And we depended on it too much.

MCCUNE: Too much because after a decade of spraying Roundup the pigweed did its own genetic morphing and became as immune to Roundup as those miraculous soybeans and cotton were. Spray as much Roundup as you want; the pigweed did not care.

PIERCE: Mother Nature's pretty sharp.

MCCUNE: There were other pesticides. One particularly powerful one called Dicamba could still kill pigweed easily. So the big companies that make seeds and pesticides invented a new seed, one that could survive Dicamba. Great - except for one big problem. It's illegal to spray Dicamba on your cotton and soybean plants. It's an old pesticide. And all pesticides can drift, but Dicamba is especially prone to it. Wherever it lands, it will kill everything, everything that isn't resistant.

The big companies were working on a new version of the spray, one that didn't drift. But it hadn't been approved yet, so the resistant seed came out before you could buy the pesticide to go with it. Karen says her husband saw right away where this would go.

K. WALLACE: All along the way Mike knew that and several people knew that this seed could present a problem.

MCCUNE: A problem because the old Dicamba was so tempting.

K. WALLACE: The old formulation is cheap to use. And they thought it would take care of their weed population, and just would go out and do it anyway.

MCCUNE: Karen says as soon as those farmers got their new seeds growing, Mike saw trouble in his fields.

K. WALLACE: He could spot a problem pretty rapidly. And we knew that, you know, something wasn't just quite right.

MCCUNE: So hang on, what did it look like?

K. WALLACE: The plant just curls up.

MCCUNE: It curls up and the leaves pucker. And when it's bad, the plant dies. So Mike did what he'd always done in this situation.

K. WALLACE: He was just one to go out and try to talk through problems and shake hands and leave.

MCCUNE: But his son Bradley says this time it didn't seem to work when Mike went to tell one neighbor, hey, you sprayed me.

B. WALLACE: First time, he denied it. Dad went back out and looked and could tell that it was coming from - off of him. You could tell by the weeds in his field that were dying. Called him back, he denied it again.

MCCUNE: So Mike called the Plant Board, which is like the pesticide police. And let me just say, spraying these kinds of pesticides is a serious affair. You have to have a license. Arkansas University's county offices give yearly refresher courses on this stuff to keep farmers up to date. I went to one. They must have said read the label 15 times.

And the label is, like, seven pages of complicated instructions. The label tells you when you can spray, on what types of crops, at what wind speeds, even what kind of nozzle to use. One of the University of Arkansas guys I talked to, Tom Barber, told me if the Plant Board suspects you did not follow the rules they will come swab the tank that holds the pesticides. They'll check your nozzle.

TOM BARBER: It's hard to hide a lot of this.

MCCUNE: Oh, so there is evidence.

BARBER: So there is evidence you can find. Yeah. You know, there's ways to figure it out.

MCCUNE: So they're like, we found Dicamba in your tank. Your crops are cotton. Therefore, you used Dicamba when you weren't supposed to. And then they say, so we're taking you to jail.

BARBER: Well, there's no - I don't know if they took them to jail (laughter).

MCCUNE: Actually, the farmer is called to a hearing, usually months later. And if they find he did indeed spray illegally he is fined. When Mike filed his complaint with the Plant Board, they called in a Missouri farmer who's got fields next to Mike's. His name is on the transcript of the hearing, so I drove over to his farm.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MCCUNE: Hello?

The Masters farm is just a little bit bigger than the Wallace farm. These are multimillion-dollar operations. But at the same time, none of these farmers look rich to my eyes. The Masters live in an old house with a rickety screen door. They take out huge loans to buy the seeds and the pesticides. And farmers' margins are thin, and especially these last few years with cotton and soybean prices down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You're a long way from home, aren't you?

MCCUNE: I'm a long way from home.

Some farm hands tell me Donald Masters is at lunch and to watch out for the dog. She bites. One suggests carrying a piece of plastic pipe. Then the son, Douglas, arrives.

DOU. MASTERS: Hi, how are you?

MCCUNE: I'm good.

In his 50s, big beard, wild hair.

DOU. MASTERS: What do you need to know?

MCCUNE: I ask him about the Plant Board's visit to this farm. And he says, yep, they did figure out that he and his family sprayed Dicamba when they weren't supposed to.

DOU. MASTERS: If you get Dicamba, you can smell it and taste it. Or I do. You know, it tastes like metal in your mouth. You've never mixed it (laughter).

MCCUNE: I haven't.

Anyway, Douglas says the Plant Board investigators were too late to actually find Dicamba in their tank, but they found plenty of other evidence.

DOU. MASTERS: Yeah, everybody got in trouble.

MCCUNE: And did - did you know that you weren't supposed to be spraying it?

DOU. MASTERS: (Laughter) You want admission of guilt, don't you?

MCCUNE: No, I actually really want to understand it. What I want, like, is the economics. I want to know, like...

DOU. MASTERS: (Unintelligible) It goes back to economics.

MCCUNE: So tell me, what was going on here economically? And what did that make people...

DOU. MASTERS: If you don't have - if you wouldn't have sprayed Dicamba last year to get rid of it, to get rid of these pigweeds, we'd have had how many of them choppers we could bring in here by the truckload, by the bus.

MCCUNE: Choppers are people with hoes, in most cases immigrant laborers who manually pull out the pigweed.

DOU. MASTERS: Over a hundred. And they go bid on fields. They bid on fields to go chop. And you'll lose money. I mean, there ain't no - you lose money when they do that.

MCCUNE: At this point Douglas' dad gets back from lunch, which they call dinner. He's got white hair, eyes that look like they've been peering into the sun for 70-plus years. And when he sees me, he pays no attention, just climbs up into a huge red machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)

MCCUNE: I head over.

Can I come up?

And have to climb up six steps to reach him.

What is this machine called?

DONALD MASTERS: What?

MCCUNE: What we're in.

DON. MASTERS: Tractor.

MCCUNE: It's just - I always want to call everything a tractor, but I'm never sure if I'm right.

DON. MASTERS: That's what this is, a tractor.

MCCUNE: He takes a quick phone call and then we talk, me in the buddy seat.

You know, it looked like from the Plant Board record I saw in Arkansas that you were accused of spraying Dicamba when you weren't supposed to. And...

DON. MASTERS: I did. I paid the fine.

MCCUNE: And why'd you do that?

DON. MASTERS: Why'd I do it? Because I got weeds you can't kill otherwise.

MCCUNE: Well, he could have sprayed some other pesticides, but they were three times as expensive and not the best choice. And here he was with these Dicamba-tolerant seeds. Donald told me when he bought the seeds he thought he'd be able to buy the new, improved Dicamba within months. When that didn't happen, he just figured he could use the old Dicamba without hurting anyone.

DON. MASTERS: You know, I had a machine that didn't drift (unintelligible).

MCCUNE: And what do you say to people who say the law is the law, that you've got to read the label and do what, like, the label says?

DON. MASTERS: You're not supposed to drive over 60 miles an hour or 35 a lot of places, but I bet you do. All right, I got work to do.

MCCUNE: All right. Thank you so much.

The penalty for spraying illegally was not a lot more than a very expensive speeding ticket, a maximum fine of $1,000. And that made Mike Wallace and his family as mad as anything. Back in their office, his wife Karen and Dave Pierce can crunch the numbers in their heads.

How much did $1,000 matter compared to the savings that people were getting by spraying Dicamba?

PIERCE: You're dealing with multimillion-dollar operations. You know, I mean, just the herbicide alone, you know, they could be saving 25, 30, $40,000.

K. WALLACE: And so $1,000 didn't really mean that much when they're saving $40,000 and $50,000. They'd go down and write their thousand-dollar check and walk away.

MCCUNE: That first year that the Dicamba-tolerant cottonseeds were out, farmers across Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee found their own plants dying because their neighbors were spraying Dicamba. Mike Wallace did not want to switch to the new cotton seeds himself. They were more expensive, and he liked what he had. But Karen says they switched anyway, even though they still couldn't spray the Dicamba pesticide.

K. WALLACE: We felt like we had to protect ourselves. We planted all Dicamba cotton just to keep from having the drift on it and the damage.

MCCUNE: But the following year, another genetically modified seed came out, this time a soybean seed that could survive Dicamba. So now there were Dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybeans on the market, but still no updated and legal version of Dicamba spray to go along. Tom Barber says his phone started ringing off the hook about cupping and curling leaves.

BARBER: They started calling in June. And we started getting pictures of Dicamba symptoms on the sensitive soybean.

MCCUNE: And what kind of level damage were you seeing?

BARBER: We saw severe and we saw minimal. I mean, I, you know...

MCCUNE: And severe would mean, like, 50 percent of somebody's crops or something?

BARBER: Right.

MCCUNE: Were people pissed?

BARBER: (Laughter) Yeah.

MCCUNE: Mike was pissed, too. He had switched to Dicamba-resistant cotton, but now his soybeans were dying. There were so many complaints of damage from drift that summer of 2016 that the federal government stepped in to investigate. More than 100,000 acres damaged, millions of dollars. And Mike Wallace was speaking out. He was pushing the state to raise fines. He had been talking about mounting a lawsuit against his neighbors. He was quoted in The Wall Street Journal.

Mike's complaints that summer had gotten another big farmer into trouble with the Plant Board. Documents show the farmer was contesting it, refusing to give over his pesticide records, and Karen says the farmer called Mike at one point and upset. And then one day, months later, for reasons Mike's family members say they cannot figure out, Mike got a phone number for a young employee of that farm and called him up.

K. WALLACE: The crop year was over. Our harvest was done. He was moving dirt. And, you know, just from hearing what others have said, you know, there was a conversation between me and my husband. And Mike was going to talk to him about it that day.

MCCUNE: A little before 5 o'clock on October 27, the two men drove their cars to that quiet county road between the two farms, got out, started to talk as farmers always have, and things got out of control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We have continuing coverage tonight after a man in Mississippi County was arrested after reportedly shooting and killing another man.

MCCUNE: Mike was unarmed. The other man was a 26-year-old named Allan Curtis Jones. There was one witness. Jones' cousin had come along. And according to the sheriff's press release, Mike Wallace grabbed Curtis Jones by the arm. Jones pulled away from him, drew his gun and, quote, "shot Wallace until the gun was empty."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: According to Sheriff Dale Cook, the shooting happened after the two got into an argument.

DALE COOK: The preliminary information, it was about this Dicamba drift.

MCCUNE: The sheriff's press release says the cousin pressed a shirt onto one of Mike's wounds and told Jones to call 911. The 911 call log says Jones told the operator that he shot Mike in the chest after Mike had, quote, "attacked him." By the time police arrived, Mike was dead. There is a lot that remains a mystery, like why did Mike call Curtis Jones and what did they say? The harvest was over. Over in Arbyrd, Mo., where Curtis Jones is from, people can't believe it happened. Farmers like Donald Masters, that guy I met on the big red tractor, he says he watched Jones grow up.

DON. MASTERS: Oh, well, I know the boy who shot him and the guy that got shot. They said Curtis was just scared. But I can't believe you get that scared. But Curtis had a gun and Mike didn't, so...

MCCUNE: Have you seen him since then?

DON. MASTERS: Yeah.

MCCUNE: Curtis Jones got out on bond the same night of the shooting. I, like, everyone else I talked to, was still confused about how a fight over drifting pesticides could lead one farmer to kill another, so I did go by the place Curtis Jones works a mile or two from the Masters farm. I just walked in, and there he was sitting behind the counter. I'd seen lots of photos of him.

Hi, my name is Marianne. I'm looking for Curtis Jones.

But when I said I was there to talk to Curtis Jones, Curtis Jones said he wasn't there.

ALLAN CURTIS JONES: I'll have him give you a call about that.

MCCUNE: OK.

CURTIS JONES: All right. What's your - leave your name and number and...

MCCUNE: Sure.

We go back to Mike Wallace's farm after this short break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: There are a lot of ways to think about why Mike Wallace died. You can certainly fault Curtis Jones, at the very least, for pulling a gun on an unarmed man. Some fault the state for not regulating all this more effectively. Arkansas is now raising the fines for illegal spraying. A lot of people, including the Wallaces, are furious at the company that put out Dicamba-tolerant seeds without being able to sell the new spray to go with it.

That company is Monsanto. And they say the new seed had a lot of benefits even without the right pesticide to spray on it. And they wanted to get it into farmers' hands as fast as possible so they could work with it. They also told farmers not to use the old Dicamba. Monsanto is now approved to sell an updated version of Dicamba that is less likely to drift, though it's three times as expensive as the old one, and it's still restricted during growing season in Arkansas.

BARBER: I don't blame Monsanto. I mean, I - to me...

MCCUNE: That's Tom Barber, the researcher from University of Arkansas.

BARBER: ...You know, that's almost blaming a gun manufacturer for making the gun. You know, people make decisions.

MCCUNE: One thing that people seem to agree on is that there is a hunger for ease - the ease that farmers experience during those magic years of Roundup Ready, when the pigweed could be conquered. Barber says people were hoping this new Dicamba technology would be it.

BARBER: I wanted to believe that it was going to be as easy as the Roundup system was, which it's not. But they wanted to believe it was going to be that easy again, I think.

MCCUNE: Barber is pretty convinced it's never going to be that easy again because as soon as everyone goes with this new Dicamba technology, pigweed will play that trick of Mother Nature again.

BARBER: You know, we have a history of just hitting the next herbicide, using it for three or four years. And then we get resistance. I mean, it just makes sense that if you just rely on one and one alone, you're going to develop resistance.

MCCUNE: Back at the Wallace farm, Karen and Bradley are waiting for a rain to pass so they can get their cotton in the ground without Mike. Karen Wallace says more than a thousand people showed up for her husband's funeral at their church.

K. WALLACE: We wanted tractors around the cemetery. And there was probably 15 or 20 tractors that - people brought their equipment and lined it up. Yeah. He was just a very, very good guy.

MCCUNE: Not everyone agreed with Mike Wallace. Some didn't like his finger pointing. But his friends and family saw him as a man who deeply believed farmers should be in it together - that if someone needed help digging a ditch, Mike would be there. If someone got sick during harvest, he'd be out there harvesting for them.

K. WALLACE: You know, it'd be a perfect world if we could all get along. But it's not, you know? I just hope that through my son's generation - that we can strive for that and that we can work together for the greater good of all. And, you know, I just hope that that group of young men can carry on this legacy.

MCCUNE: The young man who shot Mike Wallace goes on trial later this year. He pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW DUCK MACDONALD AND BRYAN NEW'S "BOOTSTRAP BLUES")

MCCUNE: Tell us what you think in the show. You can email us planetmoney@npr.org, or you can find us on Twitter or Facebook.

SMITH: And we have kind of a weird favor to ask of you, our listeners. Have you ever found money - cash money - that's been damaged in some way? Or maybe you've stashed some of your own money only to discover that rain or mold or insects have eaten it. We want to hear about your story. Our email again is planetmoney@npr.org.

MCCUNE: Also, if you're looking for some new stuff to listen to, Invisibilia is back. This season, they're asking this big question - how is it that two people look at the exact same thing and see something completely different? You can find it on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts. Today's show was produced by Elizabeth Kulas. Thanks to David Hundley.

SMITH: I'm Robert Smith.

MCCUNE: I'm Marianne McCune. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW DUCK MACDONALD AND BRYAN NEW'S "BOOTSTRAP BLUES")

DOU. MASTERS: Why are you here?

MCCUNE: I work for...

DOU. MASTERS: You're here for money.

MCCUNE: Guess what? I work for a show called PLANET MONEY...

DOU. MASTERS: How about that?

MCCUNE: ...So that is absolutely why I'm here.

DOU. MASTERS: So I cut it to it, huh? I got right to the chase.

MCCUNE: I wasn't pretending. I wasn't pretending.

DOU. MASTERS: OK. OK. That's good.

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