Dying Vines: How Herbicides are Damaging, and Destroying, High Plains Vineyards That Supply Much of the Hill Country Grapes


The agrochemical giants effectively control our agencies, legislatures, universities and conservation organizations. Their latest poison – which EPE rubber-stamped for general use –  is 2,4-D, a primary component of Agent Orange, the infamous Vietnam poison. Agent Orange caused about 2-million birth defects in Cambodia and Vietnam. Over 60,000 American vets at one time were on disability due to exposure, and a like number had claims pending.

NOTE: This post initially appeared on SAExpressNews.com on August 19, 2017

BROWNFIELD — At Lost Draw Vineyards in the High Plains, chemical herbicide that drifted from a cotton field in July has left a patch of merlot grapes ailing, its leaves deformed and the fruit starting to shrivel.

Dusty Timmons is directing a rescue operation in the family-owned plot, tripling irrigation and doubling fertilizer. But he worries the grapes won’t contain the necessary sugar Kuhlman Cellars in Fredericksburg needs for the red wine. He may need to snip off the clusters and let the grapes rot on the ground, he said.

“I can’t go into a vineyard in the High Plains and not see herbicide damage,” said Timmons, president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, whose company also operates Lost Draw Cellars in Fredericksburg.

He later corrected himself to say he’d recently seen one West Texas vineyard unaffected.

High Plains growers, who produce more than 80 percent of Texas’s wine grapes, say they increasingly are plagued by the potent new formulations of herbicides cotton-growers deploy in their battle against weeds.

The problem has spread across many states, triggering lawsuits in Texas and elsewhere and creating conflict among neighbors.

Texas grape growers have gotten little help from the state Agriculture Department and Legislature, where a bill to further restrict herbicide spraying didn’t get a sponsor this year.

Cotton farmers respond that the wine industry claims are overblown and that high-tech growers in the nation’s most productive cotton patch deploy caution in their unremitting battle against weeds.

The extent of damage is hard to pin down in part because some vineyards are reluctant to acknowledge a problem. But Timmons, whose members include 250 vineyards and 175 wineries, estimates more than 2,000 acres of wine grapes in Texas have seen at least some herbicide damage this year — roughly a quarter of the nearly 8,000 acres he says were planted.

He estimated his family’s losses from herbicide damage at as much $60,000 this season and overall losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for growers in Terry County, known as the grape capital of Texas. He’s not sure yet if the damage is sufficient enough to qualify for payments under his crop-insurance policy.

“We’ve seen herbicide drift in the past, but never as bad as this year,” he said.

Since the arrival of genetically modified cotton two decades ago, farmers in Texas and elsewhere relied on glyphosate — better known as Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup — to deal with the weeds and grasses that compete with crops.

But evolution interceded and the most stubborn of the weeds developed resistance.

The failure forced a return to herbicides from the mid-20th century, dicamba and 2,4-D, approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in January for use with genetically modified crops.

In Texas — with 5.6 million acres the nation’s leading cotton state last year — the industry contends only a tiny fraction of growers cause problems. The rest, they say, use approved spray nozzles and follow labels warning against spraying when it’s wet, windy (over 10 mph) or hotter than 90 degrees.

The Texas Department of Agriculture also plays down the threat, saying it has received minimal complaints about drift since last year — 15 alleging damage from 2,4-D and 11 related to dicamba.

Nonetheless, Texas is on the edge of a national problem, with damage from the potent weed-killers mounting and no new herbicides in the pipeline.

A survey of state agriculture departments published last week at the University of Missouri reported 3.1 million acres of dicamba drift injury to soybeans this season in 20 states, from North Dakota to Georgia. Roughly 600,000 of those damaged acres was reported in the past three weeks.

Researchers said Texas — where 160,000 acres of soybeans is viewed as a minor crop — didn’t respond to the survey.

Suspicious neighbors

The story unfolding is one of Darwinian reality, industrial farming perils and conflict between neighbors that has triggered lawsuits, threats and even murder on a rural Arkansas road.

Arkansas took the extraordinary step of banning the sale and use dicamba this season amid reports that it was rising from fields as a gas and spreading over distant croplands. Missouri and Tennessee imposed strict new rules for application.

In Texas, robust expansion in the wine industry compounds the fear. The number of wineries has exploded from 40 in 2001 to 400 this year, according to the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech University.

Growth in the Hill Country is soaring, with 150 winery permits active last week, compared with 34 a decade ago. Just eight Hill Country wineries operated 20 years ago.

“It’s incredible growth and not something we expect to see changing any time soon,” the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s Chris Porter said.

High Plains growers, who supply more than 50 percent of the Hill Country market, say they often can’t pinpoint the source of damage with so much herbicide used. Cotton growers say lack of humidity in West Texas limits chemical volatility. Vineyard operators don’t believe it.

“It’s the guy on the horizon that you have to worry about,” remarked Neal Newsom, who grows grapes on 150 acres near Plains.

In muddy fields this month, Newsom, 62, whose family operates the Newsom Vineyards tasting room in Comfort, showed stretches of cupped and mottled leaves on several of his 12 grape varieties.

The chemicals cause his vines to mimic drought, he says.

“Everything gets stunted and the leaves become nothing but veins,” he said. “You can’t find anything around here that’s not been zapped.”

The problem has generated suspicion and hostility between neighbors. Newsom said he has been told more than once “you need to move to town and stop watching everybody.”

Jet Wilmeth, who grows 200 acres of grapes along with 1,250 acres of cotton, said the Texas Department of Agriculture is investigating the damages he displayed in his Diamante Doble Vineyard, near Tokio.

“Now my neighbors are angry at me,” he said. “This whole situation has caused neighbors to not be good neighbors. And I don’t like it.”

By most accounts, Texas has avoided the rancorous disputes elsewhere.

Monsanto and German-based BASF are defending multiple lawsuits contending they put dicamba-tolerant cotton on the market last year before newer, less drift-prone formulations won EPA approval. Many growers committed to the GMO, herbicide-tolerant seeds sprayed early vintage dicamba nonetheless.

Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for global strategy, said: “It wasn’t our product. We’re being sued for damage that was allegedly caused by another manufacturer, and that’s not something we’re responsible for.”

Monsanto’s cotton seeds are dominant in West Texas and the company is building a $150 million cotton processing plant at Lubbock.

Partridge said Monsanto had reduced volatility in the dicamba herbicide it sells by 90 percent and is counseling growers on precautions. But in some places, the company is seeing mistakes, from wrong nozzles to contaminated equipment to sprayers driven too fast.

“We’re trying to understand what has happened in the field,” he said.

On Oct. 27 last year near the Arkansas-Missouri border, frustration over the dicamba problem turned violent.

Mike Wallace, 55, an Arkansas cotton and soybean farmer who’d complained about drifting from a neighboring farm, was shot to death on a country road after an argument over the damage. Allan Jones, 26, a farmworker from Missouri, was charged with first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Grape-growers worry that if their problems worsen, they can’t count on Texas politicians and regulators to intercede in the land of “King Cotton.”

In the Texas Legislature this spring, proposed legislation would have enabled counties to more easily impose cutoff dates for spraying. But the bill couldn’t even draw a sponsor after cotton-growers and chemical retailers objected, wine industry lobbyist Kyle Frazier said.

The Texas Department of Agriculture, which oversees pesticide use, exempted the new chemical formulations from rules applied to other herbicides with restricted use. A spokesman said the aim was to reduce cotton-growers’ paperwork.

Grape farmers say they’ve all but given up filing complaints with the state Agriculture Department because they see no results. The complaints trigger investigations not just of cotton chemicals but also digging into the pesticide practices of grape-growers, some of whom aren’t known for keeping records current.

“I’m not aware of anybody who has gotten any help from TDA,” said Paul Bonarrigo, who operates Messina Hof Estate Winery in Bryan and does business with many growers in the High Plains.

Bonarrigo said that after filing a complaint three years ago about injury to grapes he grows, the Agriculture Department fined him for improper use of Roundup and implied the damage he reported was self-inflicted, which he disputes.

Perry Cervantes, the agency’s coordinator for pesticide certification and compliance, said that when a complaint is received “we have to look at both sides.”

There’s no plan to impose herbicide “regulations for the sake of regulations” given the lack of problems in Texas, he said.

Regarding claims of widespread damage claimed in vineyards, Cervantes remarked: “I have nothing to say to that. That’s somebody’s opinion.”

Resolving problems

A 6-mile-wide hail storm last month stripped cotton along a 35-mile West Texas corridor and added another challenge this season.

The price growers get for their cotton was down 9 percent last week from a year ago. The industry still smarts from getting cut out of two government support programs in the 2014 farm bill.

On top of it all, farmers remained cursed by a machine-clogging, Roundup-resistant weed called Palmer amaranth, which can grow head-high and spread a half-million seeds.

Given their own challenges, some in the cotton trade tire at complaints about chemicals from upstart grape-growers who, they point out, often grow cotton, too. The High Plains’ fast draining soils, dry conditions and cool nights have proved ideal for both.

“Cotton is what built this area,” remarked Dan Jackson, who operates a cotton gin in Meadow, 28 miles southwest of Lubbock. “You’ll have that one guy who tries to save a buck and he’ll end up hurting somebody, but 99 percent of growers do everything right.”

Communication between competing farmers is working, insisted Shawn Wade, director of policy at Plains Cotton Growers, Inc.

“Issues have been resolved amicably or are about to be resolved amicably. We’ve had some issues but we’ve also had success stories,” he said.

Jeremy Brown, 36, who farms on 3,500 acres 60 miles south of Lubbock, is viewed as one of those success stories. He’s a fourth-generation farmer, growing organic cotton along with Monsanto’s GMO seeds, one of the technologies, he says, that enables growers to be precise while managing ever bigger acreage.

Brown receives a text on his cell phone if one of his center pivot sprinklers for irrigating stops for some reason. When operating his $300,000 sprayer equipped with GPS, he consults an app that updates wind speeds every five minutes so as not to threaten neighbors with drift.

“Most of the time, my neighbors do the best job they can,” he said about spraying herbicide.

That’s not always good enough. Brown planted 60 acres of soybeans this spring to see how the world’s largest source of animal protein and second largest source of vegetable oil would fare in West Texas. He won’t know because the field got hit by dicamba drift from a neighbor, shriveling leaves and turning plants gray.

“If it was my main crop, we’d have a problem,” Brown said.

‘Fight of our lives’

Bobby Cox’s Pheasant Ridge Winery outside Lubbock has operated since 1982, the eighth winery founded after the industry’s 1970 rebirth in Texas. Cox, 65, a wine-making consultant, has been a mentor for many viticulturists. He goes by Bobbygrape in his email.

Cox says Texas grape growers are in “the fight of our lives” because of off-target herbicides. A short walk from his winery, he showed what happens when a battle is lost.

His 30-acre vineyard of Semillon grapes, used to make a sweet wine, is dying after being hit in April by what he believes was 2,4-D. It was a second dose. The leaves are deformed and the grapes a sickly green rather the golden hue of fruit a few weeks from harvest.

Unlike growers unsure of drift’s source, Cox knows the identity of the culprit. He filed a complaint with the state, sued and is negotiating damages. He calculated what it all might cost: $4,000 an acre to tear out damaged vines; $18,000 an acre to plant new grapes; and the loss of his crop’s proceeds for seven years — the time it will take for a new vineyard to bear fruit.

Cox says he bears no animosity toward cotton growers; in all his years of nurturing grapes, he says he never was harmed by people following labels.

But he is troubled by the plight of grape-growers — and the prospect of turning his fruit into white vinegar rather than French-styled dessert wine.

“Where’s the line on the spreadsheet for just being angry about what is happening?” he asked.

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