West Texas Vineyards Blasted By Herbicide Drift From Nearby Cotton Fields : The Salt Texas is one of the largest producers of wine in the U.S. But the grapevines in the High Plains are facing a threat that's causing them to twist and wither. And it's coming from the cotton fields.
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West Texas Vineyards Blasted By Herbicide Drift From Nearby Cotton Fields

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West Texas Vineyards Blasted By Herbicide Drift From Nearby Cotton Fields

West Texas Vineyards Blasted By Herbicide Drift From Nearby Cotton Fields

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When you think of wineries, you may conjure up images of the West Coast, Napa Valley or the Willamette Valley in Oregon, although - did you know? - Texas is one of the largest wine-producing states in the country. And as NPR's Merrit Kennedy reports, something is causing vines there to wither and die.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: On the high plains in West Texas, hot winds blast through cotton fields as far as the eye can see. In the middle of it all is a tiny vineyard.

ANDIS APPLEWHITE: Let's go out here, and I'll show you.

KENNEDY: Andis Applewhite is an artist, and her family has been working this land for a century. They used to plant crops more typical of this neighborhood, like cotton and wheat.

APPLEWHITE: See, these are looking good.

KENNEDY: A couple of years ago, she decided to try something different, seeing the success of other local wine grape-growers. Believe it or not, wine in Texas is big business. The industry says it boosts the state's economy by some $13 billion every year, so she planted a couple of acres of cabernet franc grapes.

APPLEWHITE: It's fun. It's looking like a real grape plant - grapevine.

KENNEDY: This is her third season with these vines, but she hasn't yet had a crop. Over the last two years, she's seen her leaves twist and wither. On the day I visit, her vines look basically normal, even though they're smaller than she'd like.

APPLEWHITE: They're all a year behind for sure. They're not as big and full as they could be.

KENNEDY: Actually, many vines across West Texas are stunted. And to understand why, we need to talk about what's happening in all those cotton fields in the area. Right down the road from Applewhite is her neighbor, Dan Smith. Out in his fields, we can see tiny plants just starting to come up from the soil.

DAN SMITH: This cotton has been out of the ground for about three weeks. It's 3 weeks old.

KENNEDY: Smith is 64. He's lived on this land for almost his entire life. He says the cotton business has gone through huge changes since he first started.

SMITH: Back then, you could farm a smaller amount of land and still make a good living.

KENNEDY: Today margins are thinner. To make that living, farmers like him have to work much larger patches of land. Smith is growing cotton on about 5,000 acres across multiple counties. And to do it, he says he needs technology, including high-tech weed killers. A few years ago, weeds in the area became resistant to a commonly used herbicide. So the big agricultural companies started pushing new formulations of other existing chemicals. In 2017, companies such as Monsanto and Dow released new versions of these chemicals known as dicamba and 2,4-D. They also started selling cotton seeds that had been modified to resist these herbicides.

SMITH: Of course, now we've come out with a dicamba cotton.

KENNEDY: Smith uses this new herbicide. He can spray it over the whole field. The weeds die, and the cotton still thrives. The problem is these chemicals are more likely to drift into nearby fields than what they used to use. Nationwide, there are reports that more than a million acres of vulnerable crops have been damaged this year by dicamba, creating tensions between neighbors. Smith says here, they're trying to do better.

SMITH: So other places in the country, it may be a really bad situation. But around here, it's very well-managed.

KENNEDY: Smith says he's doing everything by the book. The companies have laid out careful instructions for spraying these chemicals. There are a lot of rules. But one of the big ones for preventing drift is to only spray when wind speeds are low. In Texas, the rule is 10 miles an hour. But longtime winemaker Bobby Cox says a mild, 10-mile-an-hour day in West Texas? That's basically a fairytale.

BOBBY COX: (Laughter) You can't do it. I mean, your fairy godmother has the pull out a wand and tap the pumpkin on - turn it into a carriage. I mean, it's just...

KENNEDY: And one of the most sensitive crops to these drifting herbicides is grapes. Cox planted his vines more than 30 years ago, in an area that has become the heart of the Texas wine grape-growing industry. In 2016, everything changed for Cox. His neighbor sprayed the herbicide 2,4-D, and it drifted onto his vineyard.

So it was the field right across the street?

COX: Oh, yeah, 80 feet away.

KENNEDY: Some of the vines still look sick. The leaves are really small and fan out in a strange way. About 20 percent of Cox's vines completely died. As he walks down the long rows, he pauses to pull one out of the ground that can't be saved.

COX: This is one that's died.

KENNEDY: The next time he's expecting a full crop is 2020, four years after the damage was done.

COX: It takes so long to make a crop, and it sticks with you so long. You just lost so much.

KENNEDY: Pierre Helwi is a viticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He monitors dozens of vineyards around here and is on the lookout for damage.

PIERRE HELWI: And I saw it - I would say that 90, 95 percent of the vineyards there - so it's everywhere.

KENNEDY: Drift damage can range from light exposure that doesn't impact the fruit, to total devastation, like Cox. And this area grows 80 percent of the wine grapes in Texas. Cox says he's in the process of working out a settlement with his neighbor who sprayed, which brings us back to the two neighbors we met earlier - Dan Smith, the cotton grower, and Andis Applewhite, whose new vineyard is just up the road.

SMITH: Nobody wants to hurt that vineyard.

KENNEDY: Smith says he goes to great pains to be careful, even using a different kind of herbicide in the area near Applewhite's vineyard - and adds an extra chemical that's supposed to prevent dicamba drift, to be safe.

SMITH: It's an expense I don't have to do, but I feel like I'd better.

KENNEDY: Dan Smith is doing his best to be a good neighbor. And Applewhite says other farmers tell her they're also doing their best. But two days after I left, the damage was back.

APPLEWHITE: And I noticed on new growth, the deformed leaves.

KENNEDY: The vines were suddenly showing signs of new herbicide drift. And her neighboring farmers say they didn't do it.

APPLEWHITE: They told me they didn't spray, so I have to believe them.

KENNEDY: She filed a complaint with authorities two years ago, but they couldn't pinpoint where the drift came from. This year, she says she won't bother. All she can do is keep working on her vines.

Merrit Kennedy, NPR News, Lubbock, Texas.

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