Texas vine growers are concerned about herbicides
“What we’re dealing with now isn’t Mother Nature,” said Andy Timmons, owner of Lost Draw Vineyards.
LUBBOCK, Texas — Grape growers in Texas believe airborne herbicides from nearby cotton farms are killing their crops.
“Look at these next plants. Do you know how dead that is?”
It’s just another dead Viognier vine for winemaker Cliff Bingham, owner of Bingham Family Vineyards.
His vineyard off a dusty back road in the Texas high plains was his dream, along with the tasting room he has down in Fredericksburg.
“See the main trunk, it’s dead,” Bingham said.
Andy Timmons had the same dream—a tasting room in Fredericksburg and 20 acres of grapevines twining around his home up in Lubbock.
“But what we’re dealing with now isn’t Mother Nature,” said Timmons, the owner of Lost Draw Vineyards. “I put everything I have in these vineyards.”
Timmons uses nets to block hail and wind machines to stave off a freeze, but says what kills his vines today was made in a lab.
“I would estimate that 60-75% of the cotton in the High Plains uses this type of technology,” Timmons said.
Timmons and Bingham believe a herbicide called dicamba, used to protect cotton from weeds, is to blame. The herbicide isn’t used on their vineyards, but they believe it’s in the air from cotton farms miles away.
“It’s not just a small area. It’s spread all over the place,” Timmons said.
The debate over the use of dicamba extends beyond Texas.
“It’s been a long five years of my life, let’s put it that way,” said Aaron Hager, associate professor of Extension Weed Science at the University of Illinois.
Hager says while dicamba is an important tool for so many farmers, he says it has been a problem.
“There are literally millions of hectares affected,” Hager said.
In Illinois, he says, instead of grapes versus cotton, it’s soybean farmers versus soybean farmers — those who use dicamba-resistant seeds versus those who don’t.
“It’s not about whether you’re going to see soybean damage. The question we ask every growing season is: How big will it be this year?” Hager said.
Now 57 growers in the High Plains believe dicamba damaged their vines and their future ability to grow grapes. In response, they are suing Bayer and BASF, which make the products, for $560 million.
Growers say the biggest sign of damage to their plants is smaller leaves. Smaller leaves don’t protect the grapes as well and prevent them from blistering in the sun.
“What you see in the photos, what you see in the videos are unique symptoms of dicamba. The leaves begin to buckle and stop growing,” said Adam Dinnell, partner at Schiffer Hicks Johnson, PLLC.
The companies chose not to speak to us about the lawsuit, but made the following statements:
“We have great sympathy for any grower who suffers a crop loss, but there are many possible reasons why crop losses may occur, which a number of these plaintiffs have acknowledged, including extreme winter weather conditions and other off-label herbicide use and adverse effects may have on permanent crops such as vineyards.
“Bayer stands firmly behind the safety and usefulness of our herbicide XtendiMax™ and has continued to increase training and education efforts to help farmers use these products successfully.
“XtendiMax™ is a valuable tool for growers, especially at a time when they need more options to address increased weed resistance. We are proud of our role in advancing innovations like XtendiMax™ to help growers protect their crops from weeds safely, successfully and sustainably.”
“BASF is aware of the June 4, 2021 lawsuit filed by wine growers in Texas alleging that dicamba caused damage to their vineyards. BASF has had an opportunity to verify these claims and the alleged damages and strongly disagrees with the allegations in the lawsuit. It is well documented that a 2019 frost contributed significantly to the grower’s current complaints and that other known sources of herbicides, such as B. Requests for public rights of way were ignored by the growers.”
But regardless of the cause, damaged grapes harm growers.
“Without the High Plains, there are no Texas grapes. And without Texan grapes, there is no Texan wine,” Dinnell said.
As the sun sets on a field of uncertainty, farmers pray for hope on the horizon.
“We’re just trying to save ourselves,” Timmons said.