For proponents of an Arkansas Plant Board-generated seed variety list, the lead-up to the Plant Board's March 9 meeting was filled with both hope and apprehension. But even though the outcome of the board vote was in doubt, the resounding 8-4 vote against public comment on the list stung.
Asked what he's hearing from farmers in the vote's wake, Ray Vester — a Plant Board member who represents rice farmers and voted for public comment — claims they're “struck with the fact that we, the board that's supposed to represent them, denied them a voice. We put ourselves above the farmers and told them we know what's best for them. We made a statement today that our constituents aren't smart enough to talk about this. We decided we were far more capable of making such a decision without their input. By deciding our knowledge was far superior to farmers' (knowledge), we went way too far. That's wrong.”
Vester says anyone hoping to keep the lid on such lists through the vote will be disappointed. Even before the vote, several Arkansas seed dealers made it clear variety lists were being compiled. Following the roll-call vote, they promise efforts have picked up pace as planting season arrives.
Daryl Little, the Plant Board director, expected as much. While advocating against the list during the February seed committee hearing he said, “Everyone is aware there will be dozens and dozens of lists floating around.”
A real need?
Advocates for the variety list say it would help ensure a farmer is diversifying crops. With many producers in perilous financial shape, diversification is necessary to keep input costs down and is a crucial initial step in combating and keeping a disease from being farm-wide.
Why is there fear of such risk through variety choices?
“As far back as I can remember, we've always been a state that allowed a VNS (Variety Not Stated) statement on seed labels,” said Mary Smith, at the Arkansas Seed Growers Association meeting in Brinkley, Ark., on Jan. 19.
Previously, Smith, the Plant Board's seed division director, explained the rationale for revising Arkansas seed labeling regulations. “When you buy something according to brand — and when you have a VNS bag, most are branded to identify the source — and don't know the variety, you could be buying the exact same variety under a different brand name. You may think you're spreading risk but you aren't. Or, you may buy a brand this year. Next year, you go with another brand thinking you're getting a different variety. But you aren't.”
This isn't an idle concern. Several farmers have told Delta Farm Press about suspected labeling mix-ups and odd occurrences in their crops. A farmer in east Arkansas says he planted the “exact same” soybean variety two years in a row. He stopped when he found the flowers on the second year's crop were a different color than those of the first.
Opponents of the list say such concerns and mix-ups are being addressed through two other seed-related items:
- Labeling (which, for specified crops, would require the variety be stated on the bag for all seed sold in state).
- Branding (requiring a clearer definition).
Both passed unanimously at the March 9 meeting. Public comment on the two will begin in late April.
Further, those against any centralized, Plant Board-generated list say the board should stay out of marketing. They argue such a list would turn into a marketing tool.
Opponents of the list also point out it wouldn't be “verified” and would therefore be suspect.
“Whatever (data is) turned in (by seed companies to the Plant Board) would be accepted,” says Larry Jayroe, who represents fertilizer and oil mills on the Plant Board. “The Plant Board would have no way to verify that list. And if there was a verified list, it might keep soybeans from getting to Arkansas growers for two or three years while (varieties are) being grown and verified.
“A non-verified list, to me, would serve no regulatory purpose. And that's what the state Plant Board is there for: regulatory issues. A non-verified list wouldn't serve a regulatory purpose.
“That's honestly why I voted that way.”
Jayroe says he's spoken with “a few” farmers against the list. East Arkansas producer Brent Houton is one of them.
Prefacing his comments as “things as I understand them,” Houton also derides the usefulness of a Plant Board non-verified list.
“Let's say a company…comes up with a tail-kicking Group 4. Everybody wants to plant it and different seed companies buy it.”
If Arkansas had to verify seed, Houton wouldn't “be able to plant that variety until it is verified three years (later). Meanwhile, producers in Missouri and Tennessee and Louisiana and Texas are planting that variety, making 10 to 15 bushels per acre more than I.”
During that lengthy wait, Houton believes, his crops would be in more jeopardy from disease. “We all know disease packages bred into soybeans are only good for five, six, seven years. Diseases mutate, change and something resistant five years ago, isn't any more. So I could lose two or three years of disease resistance on these new varieties if the Plant Board votes to have a verified list.
“And if you have a non-verified list, what's the use of it?”
Using a computer to compare breeder and seed company numbers, Houton says, he can build his own non-verified variety list.
“It would probably take five or six hours some afternoon to do that. But for the Plant Board to put out a non-verified list, it just looks to open them up to criticism and, possibly, liability. I don't look at the state Plant Board being in that business.”
At least one of Houton's fears was addressed by Arnold Jochums, the Plant Board's Arkansas Attorney General representative, at the last Plant Board Seed Committee meeting. Prompted by a question from Randy Veach (who represents cotton farmers), Joachums said a non-verified list could be set up in a way that would pose no liability for the board.
Regardless, Houton is pleased with the two seed issues going to public comment. “Now, I'll be able to look at the bag and see if two brands are actually the same variety. That'll be beneficial. It will release information we haven't had access to in the past.”
But Otis Howe, a Plant Board member representing the Arkansas Crop Protection Association, cautions against seeing the labeling and branding issues as a done deal. “(Those) sections still have to get through public hearings,” says Howe, who voted to send all three seed proposals to public comment. “I don't think any of it is a slam dunk.”
Unfortunately, in the vote's aftermath, there are also hurt feelings, charges of the vote having been precedent-setting and promised reckonings.
Vester, who farms near Stuttgart, Ark., says he's “embarrassed I didn't do politicking (with other board members) beforehand. But, in the past, we've never been a board where that's been required. Obviously, things have changed.
“The sad part of this is we, as a regulatory board, missed the opportunity to have input from the very people we represent.”
It especially bothers Vester that the public comment vote was made with no discussion. “No one asked a single question. How is that? They came to Little Rock with their minds made up to vote no. Where did they get their information to make such an opinion?
“We didn't vote the (seed list) down. We voted against the farmers and seed producers in the state by denying them an opportunity to speak for, or against, (the list)…What the Plant Board allowed to happen was to cut the public comment out. They wanted to silence those it would affect — either pro or con…”
Vester, who says his public comments echo those made in private to fellow board members, insists everyone understand the vote wasn't for, or against, the seed list. Instead, “I was there to vote for public comment, to hear enough information to make a decision. We had…Plant Board members who made such a decision without information. That's sad and I don't care if it's printed.”
Vester, who also serves on the Plant Board Seed Committee, is further distressed by the seeming precedent the vote set. “I've been on the Plant Board for almost a decade. Prior to today, I've never been in a meeting where, if a committee voted to suggest a public hearing, the Plant Board (disagreed). This is the first time, to my knowledge, this has ever happened. That's an amazing thing.”