NOEL KING, HOST:
State regulators in Arkansas have banned the use of a weed killer that's popular not just there but across the country. This chemical often hurts other crops and wildlife. But many farmers in Arkansas are defying the ban, and the state's having trouble enforcing it. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: This year's confrontation actually started with a farming fiasco last year. The company Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, rolled out a new way to kill weeds. It told farmers, we've created some special new varieties of soybeans and cotton. They can tolerate a weed killer called dicamba. So you can spray dicamba, and the crops will be fine. But your weeds will die. Terry Fuller is a member of the Arkansas State Plant Board, kind of the pesticide police.
TERRY FULLER: Honestly, I don't think anybody in the whole world dreamed that dicamba could create such an issue, bring so many farmers against farmers.
CHARLES: Dicamba didn't stay where it belonged. It drifted across the landscape. It injured millions of acres of regular crops. It was especially bad in Arkansas. Farmers who sprayed dicamba loved it, but Terry Fuller and the state plant board decided the collateral damage was unacceptable. I talked to him about it last year.
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FULLER: Trespassing on your neighbor and your friend - that's not my definition of good for business.
CHARLES: So the plant board passed the most dramatic limits on dicamba in the whole country - no dicamba spraying during the growing season. This summer, I called Terry Fuller back to see how it was going. And he told me it was happening again - thousands of acres of crops damaged, also trees in people's yards.
This was not supposed to happen this year.
FULLER: Not supposed to happen this year - you're absolutely correct. It's just been a sad situation and, you know, really an unbelievable situation.
CHARLES: The plant board's investigators tried to catch the outlaw farmers. Inspectors drove country roads looking for dying weeds that looked like they'd been sprayed with dicamba - took samples, tested them. In at least a couple of dozen cases, they found the banned chemical. Those farmers now could face fines - at least a thousand dollars, possibly $25,000 per violation.
I talked to a couple of those farmers and some of their supporters. They did not want me to record those interviews or use their names. They told me spraying dicamba was a business decision. Some of them think Monsanto's dicamba-tolerant seeds will give them a bigger harvest. One said spraying dicamba is the only way to survive. A couple of them said paying the fine is cheaper than fighting weeds any other way. And by defying the ban, they're putting enormous pressure on the farmers who are farming by the rules, like Tad Nowlin.
TAD NOWLIN: Personally, I don't believe in spraying dicamba. I think it's too dangerous to spray. I mean, anybody that says otherwise is just dreaming.
CHARLES: So he didn't plant those new dicamba-tolerant crops. He got rid of weeds with other chemicals.
NOWLIN: I used not one drop of dicamba. So anybody that says it can't be done, it's a myth.
CHARLES: And then he saw the leaves of his soybean plants curling up. Dicamba had blown in from some other farmer's field.
NOWLIN: Do I go out and try to witch-hunt people and find it? I'm not doing that. But I have the legal right as a farmer to keep a crop that is not damaged by somebody else's spray.
CHARLES: That legal right may not be enough, though. If other farmers insist on spraying dicamba, he may have to also plant those new dicamba-tolerant soybeans because they won't get injured. And then he'd be tempted to spray dicamba, too.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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