Ben Calais, founder and winemaker for Calais Winery in Hye, Texas, has a simple question: "Are we in the process of killing our vines slowly but surely?"
Calais Winery is one of the dozens of Texas wineries and vineyards that have been impacted in recent years by herbicide drift from cotton fields in the High Plains region. The impact varies from vineyard to vineyard, but nearly every property in the 12,000-square-mile appellation has suffered some damage, including stunted development, reduced yields, poor-quality grapes and even vine death. "If the vines die, then what?" asked Calais.
The owners of 57 vineyards in the High Plains say they are trying to prevent a catastrophic ecological ruin of the state's $13 billion wine industry. They filed a lawsuit last summer against Bayer Crop Science and Monsanto Company (Bayer purchased Monsanto in 2018) and the BASF Corporation, the developers behind a "seed system" that pairs dicamba-tolerant seeds and dicamba herbicides used by cotton farmers in North Texas. The plaintiffs are seeking $560 million in punitive and economic damages.
In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encouraging the agency to revoke the registration that allows farmers to use dicamba products, the Texas Wine and Grapegrowers Association (TWGGA) said, "This lawsuit hopes to reveal the demonstrable damage caused by the use of dicamba-based products not only on the quality of grape production but ultimately how it impacts our final product, Texas wine and ultimately the Texas wine consumers. The long-term impacts have yet to be revealed, but no doubt it will be costly to grapegrowers, winemakers and our consumers."
The lawsuit comes as the Texas wine industry is growing and gaining attention. "[The Texas wine] industry depends on the High Plains, and we can't grow an industry unless we have grapes," said Kirk Williams, owner of Williams Ranch Vineyard. Many Texas winemakers from other areas source grapes from the appellation. Roughly 85 percent of grapes used by Texas winemakers come from High Plains vineyards, making it the cornerstone of the fifth-largest wine industry in the nation, now in danger of withering as a result of dicamba's destruction.
Cotton v. Vines
The lawsuit and accompanying documents accuse Bayer and BASF of knowingly encouraging the use of products that could kill grapevines in the High Plains. The region near Lubbock is one of the world's largest cotton-growing areas. For decades, Monsanto sold the herbicide Roundup and Roundup-resistant seeds to farmers—the idea was Roundup would kill the weeds but not the Roundup-resistant crops. When weeds in farm regions like the High Plains grew resistant to Roundup and other sprays, the companies responded with herbicides that pack a bigger punch, including Monsanto's dicamba.
Monsanto and BASF began selling dicamba-based herbicides and dicamba-tolerant cotton seeds to Texas farmers in 2016. The problem? Dicamba is highly volatile, easily drifting over neighboring fields planted with non-resistant plants if not applied correctly.
The grapegrowing plaintiffs allege that internal records show that Monsanto and BASF knew a dicamba-based seed and herbicide system and the resulting dicamba drift would lead to damaged crops for farmers who did not buy their products, forcing cotton farmers to buy the Monsanto/BASF dicamba-based seed system or see their crops destroyed.
"Grapes, however, are extremely sensitive to dicamba. And grapevines cannot be made dicamba-resistant," the plaintiffs argue, which means the resulting dicamba drift is crippling the wine industry. The lawsuit quotes an expert with the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service who estimates that 90 percent to 95 percent of the grapevines in the Texas High Plains region have been damaged by dicamba.
The damage done
Growing conditions in the High Plains can be challenging for winemakers. Vines are planted at elevations ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 feet, and the climate is often hot and dry during the summer with some extreme cold spells during the winter. Frost and hail can impact fruit set during spring flowering, while punishing summer heat and dry soils can stress the vines, lowering yields.
But the suspected impacts of dicamba have been especially devastating. First the leaves start to shrivel and shrink. With smaller leaves, the vines cannot get enough sunlight, which leads to smaller crops and grapes that taste unusual. Struggling for energy, the grapes are more vulnerable to heat spells and cold snaps.
Calais is not part of the lawsuit because he doesn't own any vineyards—his winery is located 60 miles west of Austin. But he sources grapes from 11 vineyards in the High Plains and all show the effects of dicamba. Several years ago he started noticing issues, namely leaf cupping, a condition by which leaves shrivel into a cup shape, inhibiting normal ripening, and it's been getting increasingly worse year after year.
"We have canceled plantings because we don't know what happens when vines are repeatedly exposed to dicamba," he said. Rhône grape varieties are popular in the High Plains, and Calais says those vines seem particularly susceptible to dicamba damage. "Mourvèdre was a huge part of my plans. Now it makes farming tricky."
Williams started seeing dicamba-related damage in his 7.5-acre vineyard as far back as 2016. Then, in 2019, a cold snap devastated his Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard. "We've had cold weather before, and early fall freezes are not unusual, but up until then, the vines had survived for 20 years," he said. He believes that dicamba weakened the vines, and the freezing temperatures dealt the final blow.
Poison or punishing weather?
The lawsuit states that several vineyard owners have suffered widespread vine death. Some have had relationships with grape buyers ruined because of damaged vines and failed crops. Many young vines have withered before ever producing fruit.
But the defendants question whether dicamba played a role. "We have great sympathy for any grower who suffers a crop loss, but there are many possible reasons why crop losses might occur," a company spokesperson for Bayer told Wine Spectator in a statement, noting that plaintiffs have previously acknowledged these possibilities, including extreme winter weather conditions and other herbicides used off label that can have harmful effects on perennial plants like vines.
The plaintiffs reject that argument. They point out that more than two-thirds of the 3 million acres of cotton grown in the High Plains are now planted with dicamba-resistant seed. Thus, every summer since adopting the dicamba seed system, cotton farmers have applied the herbicide multiple times during the early summer growing season. They also point out that dicamba is more than 300,000 times more volatile than glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, meaning it is much more likely to drift.
"When we were getting exposure to Roundup, or other products, it was just on the borders of vineyards and [we] knew it was coming from a specific neighbor," said Calais, noting that a simple conversation would usually resolve the issue. "It was clear where it was coming from. But now it seems like the product floats everywhere, creating a farming nightmare for us."
Something in the air
Dicamba is not a new product. It has been used by farmers since the 1960s, though it was sparsely applied because of its tendency to volatilize into gas and drift, damaging other crops.
But in 2016 the EPA granted BASF permission to market a new dicamba-based herbicide that included a chemical additive designed to reduce volatility. A year later, Monsanto started selling and distributing a system of dicamba-tolerant seeds and dicamba-based herbicides to farmers across the country. As a result, many Texas cotton farmers adopted the dicamba system. In 2018, the EPA permitted a conditional registration for several dicamba products. The agency required the products include instructions for limiting drift, including avoiding application when winds were high.
The plaintiffs contend that calm winds might minimize drift, but temperature inversion spreads it. When dicamba is sprayed during a temperature inversion—a period where air close to the ground is cooler than normal—the fine particles become suspended in the mass of cool air that hangs above the soil line. Then, the slightest breeze blows the dicamba particles away from the target location, potentially miles away. The dicamba eventually falls out of suspension when the air warms hours later, potentially settling on nearby vineyards.
Calais comes from a family of farmers and understands the financial hardships. "Those [seed] systems are part of being successful, and you don't have a choice about how to go about it, he said. "I think farmers are trying to be responsible, but even if applied the right way, it's exposing vineyards."
Williams concurred. "Our vineyard has been really affected even though we're isolated on two sides by miles of grazeland. It's clear that the product doesn't stay where it's applied, even on a perfect day," he said. "Is that the farmer's fault or the applicator's fault? It's hard to hold the farmer to blame. It's a defective product."
Williams says many grapegrowers are frustrated because they understand that the cotton farmers, many of whom are friends or relatives, are just trying to control their weeds. "It doesn't do much good to go around and yell at neighbors."
Still, since the products were introduced, grapegrowers and other farmers have been reporting damage to their crops, not just in Texas but throughout the U.S. An EPA report showed that nearly 5,600 farmers, growing a wide variety of produce—peaches, tobacco, tomatoes, sunflowers, even cotton—reported dicamba damage from 2017 to 2019.
The Bayer spokesperson said the company believes their dicamba herbicide (XtendiMax) is a valuable tool for growers. "We continue to hear from growers that XtendiMax is an effective and vitally important tool, and we believe the vast majority of our customers have had success with weed control. Bayer stands strongly behind the safety and utility of our herbicide and has continued to enhance training and education efforts to help further ensure growers can use these products successfully."
In 2020, a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit canceled the EPA's registration of dicamba products, citing damage to crops, including soybeans, and general harm to numerous farming communities. The cancellation was temporary. A few months later, dicamba products were restored, this time including label instructions and tighter rules for application. But enforcing those rules is near impossible.
In December, the EPA announced that it was considering further restrictions on the herbicide, stating that measures imposed had failed to reduce complaints of herbicide drift. But the registration has not been pulled for 2022.
How do you fight an invisible force?
There's not much grapegrowers can do to combat the effects of dicamba. Williams says there's no exposure risk early into the growing season, since dicamba is sprayed in summer, so he is encouraging vigor to establish an abundance of leaf cover to help protect the grapes for the season ahead. "We've learned that you have to fertilize as early as possible and try to maximize early-season growth," said Williams, noting that it's not an ideal strategy, but he feels like he doesn't have a choice.
He is also planning to experiment with Surround, a crop protectant. Made from modified Kaolin clay, it's designed to be sprayed on plants, forming a barrier that protects from many pests, fungal spores and sun damage. "We'll see if it can intercept some of [the dicamba] before it gets to the leaf surface. I have no idea if it will work."
Calais adds that it's not just the vines that are impacted—the resulting wine changes as well. "Wine is about balance, but you'll get issues in the wine if you put the vine off balance." Because some grapes haven't been able to develop fully, Calais has pivoted to making a lot of rosé in recent years. "It's better than not being able to pick grapes."
For now, Williams has been able to keep his brand alive by purchasing grapes from other growers. "It's not a preferred way to make money, but it's the only way to keep going." Earlier this year, he was in the process of putting out grow tubes to help retrain some of his vines that had died back. "I'm not going to make any money for another year or two off those new blocks. So, if we ever get any settlement, that's where the money would go."
At press time, the court has yet to schedule a hearing. For now, Texas grapegrowers are bracing for another year, with summer quickly approaching. "No matter what we do, we keep getting hit, in some instances harder than before," says Williams. "We know the registration didn't get pulled for the 2022 growing season, and our hands are tied."
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