Missouri peach farmer testifies about alleged dicamba damage

In June 2018, Bill Bader’s grandson wanted a ripe peach to eat, so the two got in an all-terrain vehicle and drove to an area of Bader’s farm where the fruit would be about the size of baseballs, ready to eat fresh off the tree.

Only when they got there, the peaches were on the ground. The weakened trees, Bader said, just couldn’t hold the fruit. His grandson asked him what they should do now.

“I told him the best I know to do is go fishing,” Bader testified in federal court in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on Wednesday. “So we just went fishing.”

Bader teared up telling the story. He said that day was when he realized there was little hope for the future of Bader Farms, the largest peach farm in Missouri. In 2018, the farm harvested about 12,000 bushels of peaches. Just 15 years earlier, the farm had been averaging yields of 162,000 bushels.

Bader Farms alleges in a federal lawsuit that Monsanto and BASF are responsible for the damage to his farm and is requesting damages of $20.9 million.

The case centers around the weedkiller dicamba, the spraying of which greatly increased starting in 2015, after Monsanto and BASF released dicamba-related products. The lawsuit alleges that the companies released their products knowing they would cause damage on farms, creating more demand for their products.

In all-day testimony on the eighth day of the trial, Bader said that as long as dicamba is sprayed during the growing season, his peach farm will not be a sustainable business.

Lawyers representing BASF and Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, asked Bader questions about other issues the farm faces, including weather events and a soil fungus.

They also presented evidence that Bader’s yields dropped significantly prior to 2015 and that Bader Farms, according to its own spraying records, had illegally applied pesticides in multiple years it is claiming it suffered dicamba damage.

Dicamba issues start in 2015

Bader claims the problem of dicamba moving from nearby fields onto his peach trees started in 2015.

That year, Monsanto introduced genetically modified cotton seeds that could withstand being sprayed with dicamba. The seeds were designed to give farmers more weedkiller options for dealing with the “superweeds” that had developed resistance to glyphosate, sold under the brand name Roundup.

In 2016, the company released soybean seeds that were also resistant to dicamba. Farmers, however, had no approved versions of the weedkiller to spray until the 2017 growing season, when Monsanto and BASF released versions designed to be less likely than older versions of dicamba to move off-target.

Bader alleges that many farmers illegally applied older versions of dicamba — some of which were sold by BASF — to the seeds, branded as Xtend seeds, in 2015 and 2016, thereby creating the issue.

Similar lawsuits with similar allegations, including a class-action suit, are ongoing. BASF saw sales of older versions of dicamba increase from $60 million annually in 2014 and 2015 to $100 million in 2016, according to documents presented during the trial.

In testimony on Wednesday, Bader said he has no proof that a single entity or farmer applied dicamba that had drifted and harmed his crops. Nor does he have proof that a certain brand of dicamba damaged his crops.

“You don’t know whether it was sprayed over Xtend crops or over corn or as a burndown or other use, correct?” asked Jan Miller, a lawyer for Monsanto.

Bader agreed.

At the end of the day, Bev Randles, Bader’s attorney, asked Bader why he thinks dicamba being sprayed over Xtend crops is the problem. Traditionally, dicamba was sprayed before planting to kill weeds, a practice known as “burndown.”

“They been spraying burndown for 25 to 30 years. Until the Xtend system came in, we never did have problems with dicamba,” Bader said.

Bader’s woes predate dicamba

Monsanto presented a record of Bader Farms’ yields from 2011 to the present showing that the harvest had ranged from 60,000 to 80,000 bushels, except for in 2015 and 2018.

In both of those years, Bader’s trees suffered damage from weather events, and in 2015, he claimed damage from a pesticide drift incident unrelated to dicamba.

Those numbers were far from the 162,000 bushels from the early 2000s, when the farm was supplying up to 70 percent of the fruit grown in Missouri each year and its fruit was being sold in grocery stories across the Midwest and South, said Miller, a lawyer for Monsanto.

In questioning from Randles, Bader explained the long-term implications of a freeze in April 2007. That year, Bader Farms had a complete crop failure. Many trees were lost and others were slow to recover.

In the following years, Bader bought as many trees as he could to replace them, but nurseries from the East Coast to Oklahoma had been affected by the 2007 freeze and didn’t have much of a supply.

By 2011, Bader Farms was still playing catch-up on replacing old trees, though it was making progress, Bader said. Since peach trees do not produce much of a crop for the first three years, Bader knew their yields would be low for a few more years. Still, he was confident the farm could get back to those early 2000s levels, he said.

According to Bader, “We were shooting for [2015].” He said that with the number of acres coming into production that year, he expected 100,000 bushels.

But 2015 was when Bader claimed he was first hit by dicamba.

That year, he harvested 39,025 bushels, 60 percent less than he expected. He attributed 10 percentage points of the loss to a hailstorm, 15 percentage points to an April pesticide drift incident from a crop duster, and the other 35 percentage points to dicamba damage, which he said happened in June and July.

In 2016 and 2017, Bader Farms’ yields were 67,682 and 60,127 bushels, respectively. Miller, Monsanto’s attorney, pointed out that wasn’t much lower than in 2011 to 2014.

“But they were supposed to be climbing,” Bader said, referencing all the years the farm had been planting trees. He said he had expected a harvest of about 125,000 bushels.

Miller said Monsanto investigations in later years showed that soil tests conducted at 22 different sites across Bader Farms came back positive for armillaria root rot, a fungus that causes leaves to wilt and peaches to be smaller. “Those are all the same things you claim dicamba is doing to your orchard,” he said.

Bader said the fungus could have been in the soil for decades and pointed out that he didn’t have any problems with armillaria until his trees were weakened by dicamba.

“I have seen things happen with my peach trees that I have never seen before in my life,” Bader said.

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