Certain herbicides hurting Md. crops

Increasing use of certain herbicides — such as dicamba and “2,4-D,” which is short for 2,4-dicholorphenoxyacetic acid — is resulting in significant damage on Maryland farms and loss of wine grape, nursery, orchard and vegetable crops. It is time to protect agriculture by improving education, surveillance, and regulations related to use of these herbicides.

Dicamba and 2,4-D are members of a class of herbicides known as growth regulators. These are common chemicals, with more than 1,500 products containing 2,4-D — such as Weed B Gone — available in the United States. Because these herbicides are highly effective against broadleaf weeds, but do not harm grasses, they are commonly used for lawn and turf management, some agricultural applications and right-of-way maintenance along roads, powerlines and railroads. Most can vaporize in certain weather conditions, resulting in drift from one field to another and damage to non-target crops up to a mile, or even two, from the point of application.

The problem exploded into public view this year with expanded use of dicamba following production and marketing of soy bean seeds that have been genetically modified to resist dicamba’s action. Off-farm damage, including loss of soy beans on farms that do not use the modified seeds, has been particularly severe in Midwestern states, such as Arkansas, which has banned use of dicamba during the 2018 growing season. But the problem is not a new one, and it is not confined to the Midwest. Many Maryland farmers have been affected.

In May of this year, for example, we observed the sudden onset of typical signs of 2,4-D injury — bushy shoots and deformed leaves — throughout our commercial vineyard in Davidsonville. The Chardonnay blocks, which were in full bloom at the time of the injury, were especially hard hit. While no vines appear to have died, we lost about one-third of the expected crop in those blocks. We also had trouble ripening the fruit on damaged vines because of reduced photosynthetic capacity in the damaged leaves. And because crop insurance to cover 2,4-D damage is not available, we will have a corresponding loss of revenue.

Fortunately, there are several actions that Maryland can and should take to protect state farms without banning these useful, but potentially dangerous, products. First, Secretary of Agriculture Joe Bartenfelder should initiate a Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) program of active monitoring and surveillance of the use of this class of herbicides and any resulting damage.

Second, MDA should work with manufacturers, lawn and tree care companies, and retailers to educate users in safe and appropriate use of these herbicides. For example, a module on their safe use could be required for renewal of both private and commercial pesticide applicator certificates.

Third, MDA should expand its capacity to investigate complaints. While we reported the damage in our vineyard in May, a report has not yet been issued, limiting our ability to prevent damage in the future.

Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly should also get involved. They should convene a workgroup to assess the costs and benefits of actions that might require new regulation or legislation. A first topic for consideration should be the creation of a fund to compensate growers for documented losses. Funding for compensation could come from user fees collected at the point of sale of these herbicides, or from manufacturers.

The governor’s workgroup should also consider additional measures, including:

  • Restricting use of growth regulator herbicides to certified applicators and certain times of the year;
  • New labeling requirements;
  • Mandatory reporting of time, date, location and weather conditions at the time of use;
  • Documentation that the applicator checked Maryland’s Pesticide Sensitive Crop Locator prior to application;
  • And a requirement that sellers collect the names and contact information of purchasers.

Agriculture is our state’s largest industry, contributing billions of dollars to the economy and employing more than 350,000 people. A healthy agricultural sector is critical to preserving the environment and to our quality of life. Yet, increasing use of growth regulator herbicides on lawns, roadways and farms is endangering the survival of important crops. It is critical that we develop thoughtful education and policy initiatives to mitigate the threats posed by the indiscriminate use of these herbicides.

Tom Croghan (tom@dodonvineyards.com) is chair of the Maryland Wineries Association Government Affairs Committee and owns, with Polly Pittman, The Vineyards at Dodon in Davidsonville, Md.

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