On May 1, an anonymous caller to Mississippi's Department of Agriculture claimed that some of that state's wheat acreage had been sprayed with an unlabeled pesticide. The Mississippi Bureau of Plant Industry began checking. Within 48 hours, it became clear that the caller - whatever his motives — had been speaking truth: Fury, a product approved for use on cotton, had been sprayed on wheat to control an outbreak of armyworms.

Soon after it was discovered that not only Mississippi wheat was affected, but also Arkansas wheat.

Attempting to nip the problem in the bud, investigators from both states fanned out.

What lead to so many wheat fields being sprayed with Fury? The answer isn't easy to find.

The farming industry, a cobweb of enterprise if ever there was one, has a lengthy chain of players from top to bottom. That's the reason it's so easy to pass the buck. And many are doing so.

“There are plenty of people in the chain. FMC may make the stuff, but they don't spray it. And farmers don't get their recommendations from ag pilots. So to ascertain who's at fault in this thing may come down to a case-by-case hearing,” says Delta Council president Chip Morgan.

The idea that some central entity had nothing to do with this is hard to believe, says Arkansas Extension wheat specialist William Johnson.

“Why would all these fields in different states get sprayed illegally with the same product — a product that has never been used on wheat before? It would take an incredible number of coincidences for that to have happened in so many fields that are so far apart. Someone had to start the ball rolling.”

Apparently, no one has accepted responsibility for the gaff. But when it's determined who the guilty party (or parties) is, the Arkansas Plant Board will react swiftly, says Daryl Little, the board's assistant director. “By law it's illegal not only to use, but to recommend for use any product that's off-label. I haven't seen any of the case files, but there's a lot of finger-pointing going on between dealers, consultants and FMC representatives.

“If we can document that anyone involved has violated laws, we'll be taking action. As in Mississippi, we have civil penalty authority. We have a matrix that spells out the penalties according to whether the offense is a first, a second and so on,” says Little.

Some of the guilty could receive as little as a warning letter. That will likely be true of any farmers involved, says Little. But the commercial applicators and dealers, depending on the counts and history, could be assessed substantial fines and find their licenses in jeopardy.

Mississippi's investigation has been completed and enforcement options are being weighed.

“Until we sit down and make a ruling, I can't comment on what the genesis for this was. It's safe to say that (everyone) has been accused of giving the first go-ahead, but exact blame hasn't been assigned yet. Certainly, no one in the chain has been exonerated,” says Keith Davis, branch director of the Mississippi Bureau of Plant Industry.

Arkansas won't be finished with its investigation until late summer at the earliest. “We intend to find where the buck stops. Some situations may call for EPA action, if we feel criminal charges are warranted,” says Little.

According to spokesmen, neither of the two states involved nor FMC has yet disciplined anyone over the illegal spraying.

Some farmers point to FMC's willingness to buy Fury-tainted wheat as proof of its culpability. Little says that may prove out, but warns against judging too quickly.

“There are two ways to look at that. The first is that FMC is ultimately responsible for this and that its willingness to buy all this tainted wheat proves it. The second way to view it is that FMC has a product that it wants to protect and by buying these farmers' wheat it is just being a good steward. FMC could claim that it didn't have anything to do with the start of the spraying, that it is just helping in the aftermath. Until the reports come out, both of those things could be true.”

Jeff Jacoby, FMC's director of public affairs says everyone should wait for the reports before making rash judgments. “A lot of people along the distribution chain provide advice and counsel. That goes from dealers to distributors to crop consultants to Extension Service people and FMC reps. We don't have any knowledge of what was said and who said what in that chain. That will be determined by these investigations.”

What about continuing concern from some quarters that Fury-sprayed wheat has made it into elevators? Stories of such occurrences persist.

“We've had two farmers call and fess up that they had sprayed wheat with Fury and they didn't make the (banned wheat) list,” says Little.

During the course of the plant board's investigations, tampered records have been found.

“When we first started we went looking for farmers who had purchased Fury but weren't growing cotton. But we decided we weren't getting enough good information. So we went back and started tracing all the Fury — even that sold to cotton farmers. In that process, we found some application records altered to show that Fury had been sprayed on cotton when it had really been sprayed on wheat.”

Little says the records weren't altered by farmers but by applicators.

So did any Fury-sprayed wheat slip through plant board defenses?

“We did the best we could and I hope we found all of it. I'm not naive enough to know that we did, though,” says Little.

Mississippi Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Chris Sparkman says any claims for needing Fury on an April cotton crop need scrutiny. “Most farmers don't buy their insecticides so far in advance that they'd be buying a product to be used on cotton four months later. Basically, if someone is buying Fury in April, the cotton is a long way from needing (it),” says Sparkman.

Little says he hopes this helps everyone understand why undermining the integrity of the country's food can have a serious impact on markets. “Within a week of this coming to light, we were visiting with wheat association officials in Washington, D.C. They were getting calls from overseas buyers concerned about soft red winter wheat coming out of the Delta. It was that fast.”


e-mail: david_bennett@intertec.com

Related stories on Pages 12-13