Protecting Your Business with Ag Data: What Dicamba Can Teach Us (Guest Column)

Jason Tatge, CEO, Farmobile.

All over the country, in ag communities large and small, farmers are reporting crop damage, neighbors are fighting, lawsuits and damage complaints are being filed, and the government is scrambling to step in.

At the center of the controversy?

A new formulation and label for the pesticide, dicamba.

In 2016, Monsanto released a new soybean lineup to include the dicamba-resistant trait, and it’s already been planted on over 25 million acres of farmland. Everything was poised for success — farmers could now use dicamba on increasingly Roundup-resistant weeds, and Monsanto was the first to market with dicamba-resistant seeds.

Things haven’t gone smoothly. Many farm owners, who are adjacent to farms using dicamba, are seeing their crops damaged, even decimated, and the signature curling of the soybeans leads to only one explanation — dicamba drift.

By some estimates, over 3.1 million acres of soybeans (about 4% of the U.S. soybean acreage) have been affected, but it’s more complicated than that. As Mindy Ward of Missouri Ruralist explains, of those affected, “some farmers are reporting a reduction in bushels per acre, while others are seeing actual gains.”

Neighbors are fighting, some are suing, impromptu bans of dicamba are going into effect, and the EPA has weighed in. When people started blaming Monsanto for not creating a safe formulation and label of dicamba, they responded saying the damage being seen is due to application error. At the same time, many farmers who are using dicamba are fighting the bans — they’re seeing great results on their farms and assert they’re applying the pesticide correctly.

In other words, everyone is trying to figure out who is at fault, but it’s unclear how or when we as an industry will get a clear understanding of what happened. Until then, farmers need ways to protect themselves and their businesses from regulatory and legal risk. Having a comprehensive data strategy may be the answer.

In fact, a little more science and a little less conjecture would help everyone on all sides of the debate. It’s not about whether dicamba is good or bad — it’s about having the ability to make the best decisions using objective information. By implementing a comprehensive data strategy on their land, farmers who collect complete data on weather, application, yield and other variables will have the ability to prove with a record what, until now, has only been conjecture.

  • What if a farmer could prove they were applying pesticides in compliance with application instructions?
  • What if a farmer could prove with a year-over-year data record that their land was affected by chemical drift, and not a host of other variables?

All too often the blame for these issues comes to rest at the feet of the farmer — what if we could change that?

Protecting your right to use dicamba

Amid all the controversy, there are plenty of farmers who are saying that dicamba has been great for yields on their farms, and, despite what Monsanto says, are applying it correctly. Over the past decade, Roundup has become increasingly less effective for farmers. In turn, the excitement over the development of dicamba-resistant traits was real.

With all of the bans and lawsuits that are happening, farmers using the product face suspicion in the event a neighbor’s crops see damage. Despite Monsanto and the EPA’s assertion that the product should be safe when applied correctly, farmers are afraid merely by using it they’ll open themselves up to liability. If we want to keep control over our farms and the right to make decisions on how we grow on that land, we should be adopting ag data as a tool in these disputes, both individually and as an industry.

Many farmers have expressed that the new  dicamba label is unrealistic with rigorous instructions that specify wind speed (minimum and maximum) and direction, temperature, time of day, and flow rate. If you can prove, with a complete and accurate data record or your application, add in the weather during the period you were in the field, shouldn’t you be able to prove you’re not responsible for damage on nearby fields? And as an industry, if we have a chain of accountability, can’t we protect ourselves from over-regulation? Data is the fastest route to protect farmers and the industry from witch-hunts and overregulation.

Protecting your business from dicamba

Of course, this whole controversy started because there are farmers all across the country whose crops are being damaged and who happen to live near someone using dicamba on their fields. They’re not responsible for their crop loss, but federal crop insurance doesn’t cover chemical drift damage (including dicamba). Farmers are increasingly worried about their businesses going under.

For anyone seeking restitution for damage, the only pathway is a civil lawsuit. If your farm is affected by dicamba or any other type of chemical drift, the burden will be on you to make a case that it was indeed chemical drift and not a host of other variables within your control.

With something like chemical drift damage, how can a farmer make a compelling case when a host of other factors also affect the way a crop develops? Chemical drift damage is notoriously hard to prove, since the damage can affect neighboring crops so differently.

Some legal experts like Todd Janzen believe that ag data could, theoretically, be used to prove chemical drift damage. By overlaying maps of plant tissue, off-target application and harvest yields, farmers and legal experts can establish patterns, a timeline and likely cause-and-effect relationships. The first step in every investigation is to gather evidence –  including maps, photos, notes and records. By collecting accurate and cohesive ag data, you make your case even stronger and more likely to see restitution.

What comes next

To be clear, I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice. I’m far more interested in what this means for our industry overall and its adoption of digital tools.

When you apply that lens to this problem, the next logical step is to give the farmer more control, freedom and protection over their operations. To do that, we need to create a chain of accountability. If we can prove, both individually and as an industry, that we have a system of accountability and measurement, farmers can protect themselves from lawsuits and negligence, and the industry can protect itself from overregulation.

It’s a win-win.

The best part of using ag data in these situations is that it doesn’t have to sacrifice a farmer’s privacy. Farmers, who collect and maintain accurate data records for their personal business use, can choose to use them in legal disputes or choose not to. It’s about having protection – for your business and your rights.

It’s hard to say how long it will be before agronomic data becomes evidence and takes center stage in ag industry legal disputes and regulation, but it’s inevitable. I am certain, however, that farmers who start collecting and maintaining digital data records now will have the leg-up for years to come.

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