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Texas winegrowers fear new herbicides will wipe out industry

Competing against millions of acres of cotton, winegrowers fear federal approval of new herbicides to be used on genetically modified cotton seeds will wipe out the wine industry in the Texas High Plains.

In his vineyard, Bobby Cox uses hand-for-scale to show how long his grape leaves should actually be. Chemical damage from herbicide drift causes leaves to shrivel and suffer from strapping, interrupting the grape productivity.

As Paul Bonarrigo watched his grapevines dwindle, he was confident that heavy-duty herbicides, probably sprayed on crops by a nearby farmer, were drifting into his vineyards. For the past two years, his 44 acres in Hale County — once sprawling vineyards providing fruit for Bonarrigo's Messina Hof Winery — have not produced any grapes as they wither from chemical damage.

Other Texas winegrowers have seen similar damage, and they blame it on dicamba and 2,4-D, two high-volatility herbicides commonly used on cereal crops, pastures and lawns. Now, the state's vintners are alarmed that use of the chemicals may soon expand to include 3.7 million acres of cotton fields in the High Plains, where cotton is being invaded by weeds immune to the Roundup pesticide long used. 

The wine industry contributed close to $2 billion to the Texas economy in 2013, according to a report by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. Bonarrigo said he thinks the industry is now in jeopardy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved Monsanto's new formulation, called XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology, which contains dicamba. The agency has also proposed to register Enlist Duo, a Dow AgroSciences formulation that contains 2,4-D. 

Both formulations will be used on cotton crops planted with seeds genetically engineered to resist the spray. Enlist Duo is already used on engineered corn and soybean crops in 15 states, and the EPA is proposing to approve it in 19 additional states — including Texas — and extend its use on engineered cotton seeds.  

"The approval of these formulations will wind up affecting every vineyard up there," Bonarrigo said. 

The EPA is expected to issue a final decision on Enlist Duo's proposal by early 2017.

"I could see it basically killing the [wine] industry, honestly,” said Garrett Irwin, owner of the 20-acre Cerro Santo vineyard in Lubbock County. “If we get the levels of damage that I’m afraid we’ll get, vineyards will not be able to recover or produce grapes at any sustainable level, and we’re just going to have to go away.”

But regulators say the new pesticides are formulated to drift less than old versions, and agricultural groups say there should be little risk if cotton farmers follow the labels and keep their spray from drifting off property.  

“I don't see this as being any more of an issue than what we have today,” said Steve Verett, executive vice president of the Plains Cotton Growers, which represents 41 counties and all 3.7 million acres of cotton in Texas High Plains. “I understand there are other sensitive crops as well. No matter what the product is or the farmer that’s spraying, they need to make sure that the product they're spraying stays on their farm."

Since his vineyards are already suffering from dicamba damage being sprayed in small quantities, Irwin said a massive increase in spraying of the formulations on cotton fields could affect any other broadleaf crop — such as pecans — that is not genetically modified to resist the chemical. For grapevines, the pesticide buildup can stunt the whole vine, resulting in smaller leaves, grapes and clusters. 

Aware of the damage that pesticides can do, the EPA stated that both Xtendimax and Enlist Duo are updated versions of the old dicamba and 2,4-D, and they have new additives that lower their ability to vaporize and drift as gas to nearby crops.

"Dicamba and 2,4-D pesticides are not labeled for use on [genetically engineered] cotton during the growing season," said EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn in an e-mail. "Under the pesticides law, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, the label is the law. The Xtendimax label requires very specific and rigorous drift mitigation measures."

But Irwin said it is unlikely farmers will buy the new low-volatility formulations because they are the most expensive. Farmers will probably instead stick to old dicamba and 2,4-D pesticides when they plant genetically modified seeds.

“I honestly don't think farmers will buy the new formulations when older labels that cost less are available and just as effective as the new labels,” Irwin said. “In short, I think farmers will buy generic chemicals without the additives to save money because the cotton won't know the difference.”

Dicamba damage on vineyards owned by the Pheasant Ridge Winery. On grapes, the herbicide causes leaves to considerably shrivel and plant shoots to be only inches long.Courtesy of Bobby Cox

Even if cotton growers do buy the new formulations, Irwin said, they “will do nothing to correct for negligence in spraying” by farmers who will not follow federal safety precautions.

Although Roundup has not stopped working completely, Verett said, an invasive weed commonly known as pigweed has become very resistant to it, so he expects the new technologies will find a good share of the market over the next few years.

“Both of the [pesticides] will be competing for acres because there’s a need for it,” Verrett said. “We want to see the various tools be made available to our producers.”

To avoid drift, the EPA doesn't allow the pesticides to be applied from airplanes or sprayed when winds top 15 miles per hour. Specific nozzles must be used to limit drift.

But Irwin said that he "highly doubts" that all farmers will change their nozzles on their spray rigs to approved anti-drift nozzles.

"All of the touted safeguards that the chemical companies are saying will make these technologies safe are really just things that sound good to those who are only vaguely familiar with agricultural practices," Irwin said. 

Bonarrigo said that even if the label is followed, formulations can vaporize the next day and the wind can blow faster than 15 mph in a different direction, so the herbicide would spray to other people's crops. Bonarrigo predicts a barrage of lawsuits between grape growers and cotton farmers.

"You can follow the label, but policing the changing of the wind is virtually impossible," Bonarrigo said. "The whole point is that before dicamba and 2,4-D-resistant cotton, before it was even thought of, we already had a major problem with herbicide damage on grapevines in the High Plains."

Another challenge faced by winegrowers is filing complaints to the Texas Department of Agriculture. 

Irwin said complaints about drift damage from off-label spraying filed with the department are fruitless. The department usually responds to complaints by sending a field expert to assess the damage and interview neighbors about the herbicides they use, but neighbors who unlawfully spray are almost never investigated, Irwin said. 

"If we report a problem to [the department], they say they come out and investigate, but they usually end up investigating the person that’s making the claim," Irwin said. "We have massive amounts of damage in the vineyard, and they say they can't find any evidence of wrongdoing. Case closed."

Bonarrigo said he called the agriculture department last year to report on drift damage, and the agent refused to take samples of the damaged crop. Bonarrigo sent samples to a lab in Oregon and verified the damage was done by a formulation of dicamba. 

Texas Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Jennifer Dorsett said the agency thoroughly investigates every pesticide complaint received from winegrowers about off-label use of herbicides. 

"As always, the agency is vigilant in inspecting all complaints received surrounding dicamba or 2,4-D pesticide applications, both now and in the future," Dorsett said. 

Dorsett also said the department will host a pesticide applicator training in January where a viticulture expert from Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service will address vineyards and pesticide use. Dorsett said this will ensure applicators have the most up-to-date information surrounding the use of these pesticides.  

Kyel Richard, a spokesman for Monsanto, said the Xtendimax-resistant cotton seeds are already on the market. Richard said that all herbicides move off-site if not applied appropriately according to label instructions but that Monsanto has conducted training exercises and education efforts to minimize movement to off-site crops.

Richard said the company is ramping up those efforts in the next several months to minimize "the opportunity for movement off- site and ensuring those herbicides are staying on target and controlling those weeds on the field that they’re intended for."

Bobby Cox, owner of Pheasant Ridge Valley winery, said that if the EPA approves Enlist Duo in January, it will eventually urge all cotton farmers to use genetically modified seeds that resist the heavy-duty formulations and that, paired with farmers’ disregard of EPA directives, it will be lethal to all non-resistant crops. 

Cox said this year’s amount of sugar in his grapes was about 5 percent less than ideal because of 2,4-D drift in 2015. Those grapes, Cox said, were not harvested in 2016 given the damage. 

Cox and Bonarrigo said a coalition of farmers who fear for their crops is being formed to work with lobbyists to file proposals in the upcoming legislative session.  

“It will be catastrophic not only to vineyards but to oak trees, to pecan orchards, to shrubs,” Cox said. “If they apply the amount of 2,4-D that they did Roundup and are equally irresponsible with that, it will kill everything green up here. I wish people would understand how important wine growing is for this area, how wonderful of a crop it is on the High Plains. It would be a shame to lose it when we’re starting to get recognized.

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