Since Neal Newsom started growing grapes on his farm north of Plains, Texas, in 1986, he has learned how to deal with many challenges: hail storms, cold weather, disease and establishing a consistently productive 150 acres of vines.
But in recent years, he can’t seem to overcome a new hurdle — dicamba.
The herbicide has skyrocketed in use in recent years, after Monsanto and BASF released a genetically-engineered soybean and cotton cropping system that was designed to withstand being sprayed by dicamba.
And signs of the volatile herbicide, which has been blamed for millions of acres of damage to crops and natural areas since 2016, show up in every part of Newsom’s vineyard. The leaves of his vines have been cupped up, distorted, stunted. Whatever growth stage the vine is in when it gets damaged, it starts to go “into slow motion,” Newsom said.
It’s gotten so bad that Newsom said he is worried about the future of his vineyard.
“We cannot sustain where we are now,” Newsom said. “This has been my lifelong dream to be where I am now, and somebody else is about to take it away from me at no fault of my own.”
Newsom is one of 57 Texas grape growers who filed a lawsuit in Texas state court on Friday morning, each seeking at least $1 million in damages from Monsanto and BASF. The growers claim that as many as 95% of their grape vines have suffered from dicamba damage. This results in “widespread vine death, canceled contracts, ruined buyer relationships and a resulting stigma,” according to the lawsuit.
In a statement, Kyel Richard, a spokesman for Bayer, which owns Monsanto, said the company stands "strongly behind" dicamba's safety.
“We have great sympathy for any grower who suffers a crop loss, but there are many possible reasons why crop losses might occur including extreme winter weather conditions that can have particularly devastating effects on perennial crops like vineyards," Richard said. "The EPA has comprehensively evaluated XtendiMax™ and determined it does not pose any unreasonable risks of off-target movement when used according to label directions.”
BASF spokeswoman Miracle King Wilson issued a statement saying that it was aware of the lawsuit and dicamba underwent extensive testing.
"It is well documented that a 2019 freeze contributed significantly to the grower’s current complaints and that other know sources of herbicides, such as applications to public rights of way, have been ignored by the growers," she said. "It’s also interesting to note that these growers did not raise their claims until after Bayer announced its $300,000,000 settlement with soy growers in June of 2020."
The lawsuit raises the question of “what’s next?” for the thousands of specialty farmers across the Midwest and South, many of whom claim that they can no longer grow the crops they desire because of the risk posed by dicamba sprayed over the top of soybean and cotton crops.
That includes the future of the $13.1 billion wine industry in Texas. Vineyards in the High Plains, like Newsom’s, account for 85% of the grapes used in that industry, which accounts for more than 100,000 jobs, according to the lawsuit.
“We're in the middle of the world's biggest cotton patch — 3 million acres,” said Newsom, who supplies grapes to more than a dozen wineries in the state. “This has been an experiment, and we're paying for it involuntarily.”
Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals banned dicamba because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency underestimated and ignored many risks that dicamba posed to farmers like Newsom. But months later in a pre-election press conference in the swing state of Georgia, the Trump administration’s EPA re-approved dicamba for five more years. Even so, the Biden administration has announced its support for the decision and continues to fight court challenges to the registration of dicamba.
To Andy Timmons, another Texas grape grower who filed suit, five more years of dicamba damage sounds impossible to survive.
“If it runs the full five-year gamut, I don’t know who will still be here in five years,” Timmons said.
After years of continued damage, older vines, which can normally live for decades, are dying because of repeated damage making them more susceptible to other factors, and he can’t get any younger vines to grow, at least the way they’re supposed to, he said.
Conservationists and farmers who successfully challenged the 2018 registration of dicamba have again filed a lawsuit against the EPA’s approval of dicamba. A recent EPA Inspector General report confirmed the ruling and showed that senior EPA officials made scientists’ change their analyses in order to downplay the risks posed by dicamba.
Dicamba has been around since the 1960s but was limited in use because of its propensity to move off of where it is sprayed and damage other crops. However, after many weeds developed resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the popular Roundup weed killer, the companies and farmers moved on to other herbicides, like dicamba.
An Investigate Midwest investigation based on internal company documents show that Monsanto and BASF were aware that the cropping system would harm thousands of farmers and moved ahead anyway, using the damage as a marketing opportunity to increase sales of dicamba.
In February 2020, a federal jury in Missouri awarded a peach farmer $265 million in damages for losses caused by the dicamba system. That penalty was later reduced to $75 million.
Months later, Bayer, which purchased Monsanto in 2018, and BASF announced a $400 million settlement of damage claims, but that settlement applied to soybean growers, and the grape growers were not eligible under that settlement.
To Timmons, he worries about the wide-ranging effects the loss of the Texas grape industry could have on his entire community.
Timmons quit growing row crops such as cotton a few years ago because he felt his legacy was in peril. He lives above the ever-diminishing Ogallala Aquifer, and he worried they take too much water to leave to his children. Instead, he decided to put land into grapes, which take much less water.
Now, the future of those vines is at risk.
“Our only hope is the weeds get resistant to dicamba,” Timmons said, “and they have to come out with another product that doesn’t do this.”
UPDATE: This story was updated June 4 to include comments from Bayer, the owner of Monsanto.
Top photo credit: Lawsuit. The leaf on the left has been exposed to dicamba. The leaf on the right is healthy.