In April, there came a point when armyworms were so thick in some Delta wheat fields that the ground appeared to shiver. Such numbers of the worms were crossing roads that asphalt looked slick with oil.
“The worm numbers were incredible. You could just drive by and see them waving at you. They were so thick, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it,” said Roy Helton, a farmer from Lexa, Ark.
Upon seeing the worms, Helton and his friend and neighbor, Ricky Clifton, called their consultant and asked that the problem be taken care of. The solution was swift in coming, and the worms were dispatched. Unfortunately for the two farmers (and over 40 of their Delta farming comrades), an aerial applicator sprayed their fields with Fury, a pesticide not labeled for use on wheat.
“We didn't see the chemical, we didn't carry it to the airport, we never had our hands on the stuff. Our understanding is FMC's representative told our consultant that this was allowed on the wheat and they put it out. That's what we've heard anyway,” said Clifton, who had 520 acres in wheat this year.
Several weeks later, employees of the Arkansas Plant Board went to the two farmers' consultant asking for a list of farmers who had bought Fury. This practice was repeated in offices across the state.
“Specifically they were looking for farmers who had bought Fury and weren't growing cotton. We fit the bill,” said Helton.
In limbo, late beans
Found out, the men were approached by the plant board and told of their tainted crops. It was suggested the men do nothing with the crops until further notice.
“We waited around not knowing if we'd be able to cut the wheat, sell it, store it — we didn't know anything. Finally, they told us we could cut the crop, but we had to put it in storage,” said Clifton.
The two men had no storage facilities, which delayed them further. Eventually, storage was found about 30 miles away in Holly Grove, Ark.
“So we were behind in cutting the wheat and, due to harvesting late, we were behind in planting our doublecrop soybeans. In fact, I only finished planting beans July 2,” said Helton.
As of July 3, Clifton still lacked a bit to be finished planting his soybeans.
Regarding the way this has played out, there are many sore points for Helton and Clifton. A major one is that no one contacted them “and told us we were quarantined until after the fact. The plant board didn't even pick up the phone to tell us our names were on a list! What happened to common courtesy? Grain elevators knew about our crop before we did. They had a list (of farmers with Fury-sprayed wheat) with our names on it that, as I understand it, was sent to every elevator in the state of Arkansas,” said Helton.
Clifton said he found out about the list from a friend who runs a grain elevator. “He asked if I knew I was on the list. I didn't know one even existed. But we checked and, sure enough, there we were.”
The tracking team
“People just don't understand the toll this has had on my family. They think it's funny, but I'm struggling to survive as a farmer…”
According to the men, the next thing that happened is FMC, the company that makes Fury, sent out a team to track the movement of all Fury-sprayed wheat. The team also came bearing binding documents both men refused to sign.
“Remember, this was before they'd even offered a price for our wheat or anything. They hadn't even said a potential contract for our wheat was in the works. Instead, they wanted us to sign something saying we wouldn't move our wheat, touch it, sell it, anything, without first getting FMC's authorization,” said Clifton.
Helton said his first question was “‘Well, are y'all going to pay me for my wheat?’ The answer was ‘No.’ My answer was ‘No’ straight back. That wheat in those bins is ours, not FMC's.”
Soon after, FMC announced that the company would buy problem wheat. For Helton and Clifton that meant $2.66 (the loan rate in Phillips County) per bushel.
“It was take it or leave it. Well, I'm leaving it. If things go terribly wrong, this might financially ruin me. But I'm principled and hard-headed enough that I refuse to be run over by some big company. I haven't done anything wrong here. They're to blame, not me,” said Helton.
FMC is also offering hauling expenses at $2 per loaded mile with an 850-bushel minimum. Both farmers claim it cost them more to carry their crop to the bins than FMC is offering to get it to the elevator.
“Best-case scenario is that the grain elevator in Helena, Ark., will take our wheat. That's roughly 30 miles one-way from Holly Grove. They'll pay us $60 for hauling. We won't find anyone who'll haul it for that. I wouldn't haul it for that,” said Clifton.
As far as claims that farmers are happy with the FMC offer, the men say if that feeling is out there, it certainly isn't collective.
“No one making such claims has talked to me. There may be someone happy with this deal, but I don't know them,” said Helton.
Clifton said he faxed FMC a counter-proposal. He's yet to hear back from the company.
It's not funny
People can be cruel. A joke or two about the illegal spraying would have been okay, said Helton. But the cutting comments haven't ended, and jokes became stale and then infuriating.
“People just don't understand the toll this has had on my family. They think it's funny, but I'm struggling to survive as a farmer and it isn't funny at all,” said Helton.
In the beginning, the men claim they were told by plant board personnel that the situation would be over quickly.
“We kept quiet, figuring that was the thing to do. But it didn't get taken care of. We started having to tell landlords. I have a farming partner, and these things weigh heavily on me,” said Clifton.
Helton, said for him wheat is “a cash-flow deal. It helps you generate a bit of cash at midsummer to help you keep farming. I don't have that this year and it hurts bad.”