CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. - In June 2018, Bill Bader’s grandson wanted a ripe peach to eat, so the two got in an all-terrain vehicle and drove to the area of Bader’s farm where the fruit would be about the size of baseballs, ready to eat fresh off the tree.
Only when they got there, the peaches were on the ground. The weakened trees just couldn’t hold the fruit. The grandson asked Bader what to do now.
“I told him the best I know to do is go fishing,” Bader testified in federal court in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Wednesday. “So we just went fishing.”
Bader teared up telling the story. He said that day was when he realized there was little hope for the future of Bader Farms, the largest peach farm in Missouri. In 2018, the farm harvested around 12,000 bushels of peaches. Just 15 years earlier, the farm had been averaging yields of 162,000 bushels.
Bader Farms alleges in a federal lawsuit that Monsanto and BASF are responsible for the damage to his farm and is requesting damages of $20.9 million.
The case centers around the weed killer dicamba, the spraying of which greatly increased starting in 2015, after Monsanto and BASF released dicamba-related products.The lawsuit alleges that the companies released their products knowing that it would result in damage to farms, creating more demand for their products.
In all-day testimony on the eighth day of the trial, Bader said as long as dicamba is sprayed during the growing season, his peach farm will not be a sustainable business.
Lawyers representing BASF and Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, asked Bader questions about other issues the farm has, including weather events and soil fungus.
They also presented evidence that Baders’ yields dropped significantly prior to 2015 and that Bader Farms, according to its own spraying records, illegally applied pesticides in multiple years it is claiming dicamba damage from.
Dicamba issues start in 2015
Bader claims the issues with dicamba moving from nearby fields onto his peach trees started in 2015.
That year, Monsanto introduced its new genetically modified cotton seeds that could withstand being sprayed by dicamba. The seeds were designed to allow farmers to have more weed killer options for “super weeds” that had developed a resistance to glyphosate, sold under the brand name Roundup.
The company also released soybean seeds resistant to dicamba in 2016. However, farmers had no approved versions of the weed killer to spray until the 2017 growing season, when Monsanto and BASF released versions designed to be less likely to move off-target than older versions of dicamba.
Bader alleges that many farmers illegally applied older versions of dicamba, some of which were sold by BASF, to the seeds, branded as Xtend seeds, in 2015 and 2016, therefore creating the issue.
Similar lawsuits, including a class-action suit, with similar allegations are ongoing. BASF saw sales of older versions of dicamba increase from $60 million annually in 2014 and 2015 to $100 million in 2016, according to documents presented during the trial.
In testimony on Wednesday, Bader said he did not have any proof of a single entity or farmer that applied dicamba that drifted and harmed his crops, and he does not have proof that a certain brand of dicamba harmed his crops.
“You don’t know whether it was sprayed over Xtend crops or over corn or as a burndown or other use, correct?” said Jan Miller, a lawyer for Monsanto.
At the end of the day, Bev Randles, Bader’s attorney asked, why he thinks dicamba being sprayed over Xtend crops is the problem. Traditionally, dicamba was sprayed before planting to kill weeds in a practice known as ‘burndown’.
“They been spraying burndown for 25-30 years. Until the Xtend system came in, we never did have problems with dicamba,” Bader said.
Bader’s woes predate dicamba
Monsanto presented a chart of Bader Farms’ yields from 2011 to the present that showed that the harvest had been about 60,000 to 80,000, except for in 2015 and 2018.
In each of those years, Bader’s trees suffered damage from weather events, and in 2015, he claimed damage from a pesticide drift incident unrelated to dicamba.
Those numbers were far from the 162,000 from the early 2000s, when the farm was supplying up to 70 percent of the fruit grown in Missouri each year and its fruit was being sold in grocery stories across the Midwest and South, said Miller, a lawyer for Monsanto.
In questioning from Randles, Bader explained the long-term implications of a freeze in April 2007. That year, Bader Farms had a complete crop failure. Many trees were lost and others were slow to recover.
In the following years, Bader bought as many trees as he could to replace them, but nurseries from the East Coast to Oklahoma had been affected by the 2007 freeze and didn’t have much of a supply.
By 2011, Bader Farms was still playing “catch up” on planting and replacing old trees, but was making progress, Bader said. With peach trees not producing much of a crop the first three years, Bader knew their crops would be low for a few more years. Still, he had confidence they could get back to those early 2000s levels, he said.
“We were shooting for (2015),” Bader said. He said with the number of acres coming into production that year, he expected 100,000 bushels.
Monsanto points to soil fungus
But 2015 was when Bader claimed he was first hit by dicamba.
That year, he harvested 39,025 bushels, just 40 percent of what he expected. He attributed 10 percentage points of the loss to a hail storm, 15 percentage points to an April pesticide drift incident from a crop duster and the other 35 percentage points to dicamba complaints, which happened in June and July.
In 2016 and 2017, Bader Farms’ yields were 67,682 and 60,127 bushels, respectively. Miller pointed out that wasn’t much lower than 2011 to 2014.
“But they were supposed to be climbing,” Bader said, referencing all the years they had been planting trees. He said expectations were around 125,000 bushels.
Miller, Monsanto’s attorney, said that Monsanto investigations in later years showed that soil conducted at 22 different sites across Bader Farms found the soil positive for armillaria root rot, a fungus that causes wilted leaves and causes peaches to be smaller.
“Those are all the same things you claim dicamba is doing to your orchard,” Miller said.
Bader pointed out the fungus could’ve been in the soil for decades and said he didn’t have any problems with armillaria until the trees were weakened by dicamba.
“I have seen things happen with my peach trees that I have never seen before in my life,” Bader said.
This coverage is supported with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.