Airplanes and ground applicators have been used to apply amendments to rice crops in Mississippi since the mid-1950s, and the interests and success of rice producers and aerial aviators have become intricately intertwined.

In the late 1990s, technology inserted into cotton, soybeans, and corn allowed over-the-top application of glyphosate onto those crops. The technology immediately revolutionized the production systems for those crops.

The U.S. rice industry never adapted the glyphosate-resistant technology for fear that its product — consumed with virtually no processing — would be forsaken by consumers worldwide. And so, non-transgenic rice is planted in a sea of genetically modified crops that are tolerant to glyphosate.

For years, this seemed to pose no real problem or threat. In the early to mid part of the last decade, however, reports of rice damaged by glyphosate drift began to surface with increasing frequency. Rice specialists noticed that rice that had no obvious damage through the growing season would yield and mill poorly and would exhibit the classic trait associated with late glyphosate drift — the kernel would be shaped like a parrot beak instead of its normally elongated, symmetrical shape.

In 2006, immediately after most crops were planted in the Delta, a wet and windy period set in. Airplanes set out to spray cotton, corn, and soybean fields plagued with weeds. Not many thought much of it at first.

By mid-May, however, reports of dead rice and rice burned off to the ground began to surface. Soon the reports were widespread. It was estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 acres of rice were damaged or destroyed that year by glyphosate.

So much glyphosate seemed to go out in such a short time over such a large area that it was often difficult to identify the offenders. Many farmers were never compensated for damages.

The extensive damage to what was already an economically challenging crop did not set well with Mississippi’s rice industry. Frustrations were on two  levels: (1) penalties often seemed insignificant and violators (especially repeat violators) were given what our industry perceived to be a wrist-slapping, and (2) the level of liability insurance coverage was in many cases not enough to cover one claim, much less multiple claims.

Mississippi’s rice farmers petitioned the state capitol and the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce for change and got it. The responsibility for the dispensing of penalties for aerial applicators found in violation of rules was given to the Bureau of Plant Industry. Aerial applicators and ground applicators now work with the same penalty structure, commonly called the Penalty Matrix. This provides a uniform system of penalty assessment among all applicators, aerial and ground, and penalties are now meted out in uniform fashion.

In addition, after careful consideration the MAAA acted to increase their minimal liability insurance requirements from $100,000 to $300,000, with a $500,000 aggregate.

One can divide the window of timing and the types of damage that glyphosate drift onto rice can have into two periods.

The first is from emergence to flooding. Rice hit at this time could be thinned, burned off to the ground only to re-emerge in various maturity and health stages, or killed. In some cases, with increased expense, it can be managed so that the crop grows out of the damage and goes on to make a normal or somewhat reduced yield.

If the young crop is killed, it can be replanted with rice (which research indicates will generally suffer a yield loss), or if pre-emerge herbicides applied to the rice allow, the land can be planted to an alternate crop.

Either effort will increase production costs and generally produce a crop with decreased yield potential.

The second distinct period that glyphosate damage occurs — and by far the most detrimental — is from a short time before internode elongation to the time when the crop begins to dry down. Mississippi’s rice crop generally begins its internode elongation period around June 1, and it is at this time that much yield potential is set.

Invisible damage

Damage inflicted by derelict glyphosate during this period is often invisible and not noticed until harvest. Damage is characterized by significantly decreased yields and milling and the rice often exhibits the first signal that it has been hit with drift — kernels shaped like a parrot’s beak.

Damage occurring at this time does not allow for an alternate crop to be replanted. Consequently, the farmer has two nooses around his neck: (1) he is stuck with a crop that will generate lower revenues, and (2) he has already incurred nearly all expenses that are associated with that crop. With anticipated 2011 direct expenses between $450 and $600 per acre and indirect expenses ranging from $200 to $300 per acre — total expenses range from $650 to $900 per acre — one can see that any losses can be staggering. This is a losing proposition for our rice industry, and one that continues to occur. Our alarm is warranted.

This is the main reason the Mississippi Rice Council unanimously passed a resolution in 2010 recommending an annual cutoff date of June 1 for the aerial application of glyphosate to alleviate the possibility that we will be severely impacted by drift without recourse when it is too late. Rice farmers do not like regulation any better than anyone else, but we will take all necessary measures to protect our crops.

Some areas in the Delta suffer more than others, and farmers have reduced or eliminated rice acreage in those areas. Because rice is a high expenditure crop, cutting acreage impacts the local economy, and it significantly impacts aerial applicators.

On my own farm, if wind conditions allow, I normally make two aerial applications of rice herbicides that would cost about $15, and make four flights for fertilizer that would cost near $25 — a total of $40 (this excludes fungicide and insecticide applications). Planted in soybeans or corn, that same land might get at most two aerial trips that will generate $10 to $15. The financial benefit to applicators of increasing rice acreage is obvious.

Yet another reason to curtail applications after June 1 is the mounting evidence that corn, even if it is glyphosate-tolerate, is subject to yield damage if it is hit after it passes the V-8 to V-12 stage — corn from 24 to 48 inches tall.

It isn’t the intention of the Mississippi rice industry to single out aerial applicators as the sole cause for our losses and focus only on remedies regarding that industry. We are well aware that ground applications have and are causing a lot of our woes and we are well aware of the need to educate all applicators.

My own most recent loss was caused by a neighbor who wouldn’t heed my warning about the wind carrying the glyphosate drift from his floppy red boom to my rice field.

The Mississippi rice industry appreciates the meaningful dialogue that has taken place with aerial applicators this past year. 2010 saw a significant drop in the level of glyphosate drift on rice. I think our industries working together helped reduce the incidence of glyphosate drift on rice. Our interests are intricately intertwined, and each of our industry’s survival depends on the other industry’s welfare.

When we plant a crop, we do so only with God’s blessing. It is only through his grace that it grows and multiplies. However, he entrusts each of us to tend its daily cultivation.

The recent rains, flooded conditions, and cool weather have added an unwelcome dimension to our 2011 Delta crop — they will be late and in extreme cases won’t be planted. This means we all must “get it right” the first time as replanting with a “used up” calendar may not be an option. With this in mind, please use added caution when applying herbicides that could harm your or your neighbor’s adjacent crops. Read the label, know the habits of the chemistry you are considering, and always apply common sense before anything else.