By BRIAN LISIK
COLUMBUS — Seeing an Ohio soybean crop being sprayed with herbicide in July used to be as likely as a summer snowfall on the same field.
But concerns that such late-season applications of herbicides like dicamba and 2,4-D could become more common has led to the development of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Ohio Sensitive Crop Registry (OSCR).
Mark Loux, a professor of weed science at The Ohio State University, said soybean crops have traditionally been sprayed in late spring. With genetic research leading to more herbicide-resistant soybeans, products containing the common dicamba and 2,4-D herbicides can now be applied directly to soybean crops well into the growing season – in some cases as late as June and July, Loux said.
That is also a time of year when a number of other crops could be most vulnerable to adverse effects of the herbicides.
“Some crops, particularly tomatoes and grapes, are especially sensitive, so it is a valid issue,” Loux said. “The impetus of the registry is to increase communication of what is in the area that could be a concern with dicamba.”
Loux said improvements have been made to herbicides like dicamba, but the primary issue remains a propensity for them to become “volatile” and travel through the air after application.
Such volatility and inversion — vapors remaining suspended in the air — is also more likely during warmer months, Loux said.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture has high hopes for the sensitive crop registry.
A voluntary informational tool launched in March, the registry currently has 380 users, according to Matt Beal, chief of the ODA’s Division of Plant Health.
“Iowa had developed (a sensitive crop registry) several years ago, then Purdue University developed one and started custom-building them for people,” Beal said. “Then producers here in Ohio started asking us to develop one.”
The Ohio Sensitive Crop Registry encourages communication between beekeepers, producers and pesticide applicators and is key to avoiding personal or property damage, while allowing target crops to benefit from applied pesticides.
The registry allows producers to list locations of apiaries, pesticide-sensitive or organic crops to protect them from pesticide spray drift.
Producers create an account to map the locations of crops and provide other information as desired. After the information has been verified by ODA, it is made available to registered pesticide applicators, both private and commercial, for use in planning.
Apiaries in particular can be difficult for pesticide applicators to find and avoid. Although the ODA maintains a separate list of registered apiaries, the registry can be used in addition to that database to help applicators locate apiaries and contact the beekeepers before spraying.
Pesticide applicators, both private and commercial, must provide their license numbers before using the site, and downloadable maps and producer details are available to applicators using the registry. All registered users are able to search the registry to view lists and maps of apiary and sensitive crop locations.
Only registered users who are approved by ODA have access to OSCR data.
“We can develop and monitor our own data,” Beal said of the registry. “And we can modify it if needed, without having to pay maintenance fees.”
That flexibility, he said, puts more control into the hands of those using the registry.
“Really, this is an informational tool and both sides benefit,” he said. “It can be used by producers who map their fields, as well as the applicators, be they private farms or commercial businesses, to make better planning decisions. The applicators certainly don’t want to hurt anyone’s property.”
Complaints of drift are addressed by three ODA Plant Health Division field supervisors and one compliance manager, Beal said.
When the division receives a drift complaint, supervisors visit the complainant’s property, conduct interviews with witnesses, and typically take samples of the damaged crop to the ODA’s consumer protection lab for analysis.
If it is determined that crop damage was caused by pesticide drift, Plant Health Division investigators look into where and when applicators were working in the area.
“Sometimes two fields were sprayed close together and you hope both applicators didn’t use the same (herbicide or pesticide),” Beal said of the sometimes months-long process of narrowing down applicators, weather patterns, and types of pesticides used in order to determine an at-fault party.
“Producers are in the fields and know their plants and can see damage pretty quickly,” Beal said. “Sometimes you can determine right away if it is disease or some other problem. But we let the lab make that call.”
When an applicator is identified, Beal said, ODA investigators interview and collect records from them.
“We want to know what we are looking at, and if we match all the pieces of the puzzle together we can say ‘yep, that product drifted’,” he said.
When a case of drift is confirmed, the division’s enforcement department can level a range of penalties, from field notices of warning, to civil penalties, Beal said. License suspensions, though less common, are also possible.
Beal said an investigation leading to a confirmed case of drift can be costly to both the ODA and the applicators, who face both civil fines and increased insurance rates in the wake of a confirmed drift incident.
Pesticide drift complaints in Ohio have waxed and waned in the past decade, from a low of 14 in 2005 to 61 reported cases in 2013 — a 20-year high.
ODA Deputy Communication Director Brett Gates attributed the 2013 spike to the unusually wet spring that year, and Beal said is would not be surprising to see high numbers again this year for the same reason.
Overall, however, drift complaints over the past 20 years have declined — from an average of 44 per year between 1994 and 2003, to an average of 29 per year between 2004 and 2013 — according to records provided by the ODA.
Beal attributed much of the drop to education.
“There are a number of Ohio State programs and the (pesticide) manufacturers put on programs regarding proper equipment, nozzle selection and making good decisions,” he said.
He said that while it is likely some incidents of drift go unreported, likewise not every reported complaint becomes a confirmed incident of drift.
Beal added that some complaints involve trees and gardens on residential properties, and the OSCR is designed to serve agricultural producers.
The registry requires that users produce at least a half-acre of an individual crop before creating an account.
Determining the long-term impact of the registry on reducing instances of pesticide drift is likely years down the road, Beal said. In the meantime, he and his staff remain focused on making both producers and applicators aware of the OSCR.
“We will be promoting it at our winter meeting and we encourage producers and applicators alike to log on and check it out,” he said.