BRINKLEY, Ark. -- On a four-to-one vote taken at its Jan. 17 meeting, the Arkansas Plant Board Seed Committee recommended new seed labeling requirements to the full board. Still a few steps short of becoming law, the labeling recommendations will be up for review by the full board in March. If approved then, the next step will be a public comment period.
While the recent seed committee meeting remained cordial throughout, disagreement over “variety lists” remained strong.
Those advocating for the lists see them as a key tool to help farmers diversify crops in increasingly shaky financial times.
Those against any centralized, Plant Board-generated list point out proposed rule changes already call for variety information on bag labels. That’s enough, opponents say; a centralized list would be unnecessarily repetitious, a point of potential litigation, outside the country’s seed law mainstream and, most seriously, a seed business killer.
Kicking off the new seed law push and citing farmers’ right to know, last July 14 the Arkansas Seed Dealers Association asked that soybean varieties be printed on seed bag labels. Currently, Arkansas law allows seed to be designated “Variety Not Stated (VNS).”
“As far back as I can remember, we’ve always been a state that allowed a VNS statement on seed labels,” said Mary Smith at the Arkansas Seed Growers Association meeting in Brinkley, Ark., on Jan. 19. But the VNS designation can be a pitfall for producers.
Smith, the Arkansas Plant Board’s seed division director, has previously said the need for the list is obvious. “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.”
After the dealers’ meeting last summer, the Arkansas Seed Growers Association met in early August. They too voted to pursue variety statements on bag labels. However, the growers asked not only for variety information for soybeans but also for rice, wheat and oats.
“We then received a letter from D&PL requesting cotton be added,” said Smith.
Seed committee recommendations were presented to the full Plant Board on Dec. 15. The issue was controversial and resulted in many phone calls and questions to board members. The full board sent the recommendations back to the seed committee for further discussion.
That discussion produced a three-pronged seed labeling proposal. At the seed committee’s Jan. 17 meeting, each component was voted on — the first two with minimal debate and unanimous “yeas”.
• Labeling. “This…would require the variety be stated on the bag for all seed sold in state for specified crops,” said Mark Waldrip, seed committee head, farmer and Armor Seed dealer.
• Branding. “This deals primarily with the definition of a brand,” said Waldrip.
• Registry list. The main sticking point, this calls for a non-verified list to be maintained of varieties sold in the state.
Everyone testifying before the seed committee asked that the variety list be required.
“By having this list, growers can sit down to make important decisions…They won’t be planting the same variety across the entire farm,” said William Johnson, a Pioneer field sales agronomist formerly with Arkansas Extension.
To bolster his point, Johnson cited severe outbreaks of stripe rust in wheat. “We saw several varieties that appeared to have the same (genetic) relationship show a lot of this disease when farmers thought they’d put in diversity by selecting different varieties.”
In 2004, “we saw the same thing happen with stem canker. There were varieties that appeared to have the (same genetics).”
Waldrip asked Johnson what additional data would be made available to a farmer through a registry that wouldn’t be through the labeling requirement just passed. “Every bag sold in the state will have that information. You’re talking about that same information being on a list.”
“On a list, yes,” replied Johnson. “Right now, a farmer will have to walk into a warehouse to do research.”
“You’re saying this (list) would just facilitate this in an easier manner?” asked Waldrip.
“In an easier manner for the farmer to assemble data,” agreed Johnson.
Danny Ladd, the Arkansas Seed Dealer Association president, told the committee whatever it decided, seed variety lists would be compiled. Numerous companies will produce lists and “if there are errors…no one will be responsible for correcting them. As a (seed) salesman, I don’t want to go into the field against incorrect information. A farmer doesn’t want to make decisions based on incorrect information.”
Waldrip again said he didn’t understand how a non-verified list would provide such assurances.
Corrections would be made quicker on a Plant Board list, insisted Ladd. “If (there are any errors) the next time there’s communication to the state Plant Board, I anticipate the correction would be made…There would be more timely corrections than in industry-maintained lists.”
Arkansas producer Harvey Howington carried a thick binder — a certified soybean seed directory — to the podium.
“For years, we got this thing,” said Howington, waving the binder. “You can see how thick it is…Every page in this book represents one variety of soybeans. For years, the Plant Board kept this list without hesitation, error or litigation…I don’t know why they can’t keep doing the same thing they’ve been doing for years: keeping a list.”
“Is that a list or a compilation of plant and variety descriptions?” asked Waldrip.
“That’s semantics,” replied Howington. “I’ll call it a ‘list’ and you can call it a ‘compilation.’”
Tim Smith, manager of Martin Farms outside Holly Grove, Ark., said he represented no seed company or special interest. “I’m simply here to represent my farm. For several months I’ve been researching the pros and cons of a seed list. I understand this complicates things for some seed companies…
“All I want is the ability, not for me but for my local seedsman, to help differentiate between varieties I plant on my farm to spread risk. I talk to farmer friends in other states who, many times, are also seed dealers. They tell me how it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between varieties. There are so many seed companies, they tend to lose quality. Arkansas, I feel, is fast taking itself in this direction.
“As a farmer, I know the quality seed companies out there. And I know how expensive it is to bring varieties to farmers. I cannot see this as anything but a plus for their operations.”
Following testimony from those attending, board discussion began with Randy Veach, seed board member and cotton farmer from Mississippi County, expressing concerns about a non-verified list. “The Plant Board is a regulatory agency and (with) everything we do…how can we have a non-verified list?...I’m a farmer, that’s all I do…I expect the Plant Board’s list to be correct down to the letter.”
Referencing immense producer interest in the topic, seed board member Ray Vester, a rice farmer from Stuttgart, Ark., said he’s yet to hear from “any farmers against this list. Most opposition has come from large, multinational seed companies. It makes me think of the old golden rule: the man with the gold makes the rules. And farmers don’t have much gold anymore…
“Right now, we’re mostly talking about soybeans and wheat. But cotton’s coming because the (new) technology is about to be sold. Corn in the central states is in the same situation…
“We represent farmers — four of us on this board by appointment or election. We’ve been charged with doing what’s best for farmers not to protect multinational corporations.”
Vester struggled to see how a list could do any harm. “It won’t create a nightmare. In fact, I think we’ll get to a point where this has to be accomplished nationally. The Arkansas Plant Board has a traditional of being ahead of the curve on many things…This is something that’s very important and we need for the farmers…We don’t have much anymore. All it takes is one stumble. There’s an estimate we may lose 30 percent of the farmers in Arkansas. They need all the protection, help and planning they can get.”
Veach wondered if support would be as high among farmers if the registry added cost to seed. “Is there any cost involved with this registry?”
“I don’t think there would be,” answered Daryl Little, Plant Board director. “Not…that (the Plant Board would) have to pass on. But I don’t know what it would cost the seed companies.”
Noal Lawhon, seed board member and president of DeltaKing Seed, pointed out that recently seed trade associations with “a lot of members around the United States…along with regional companies…took a position to oppose all efforts to publish a variety list.”
Otis Howe, seed board member with Pioneer and the state Crop Protection Association, said, “After much thought and discussion…I believe I understand both sides of the issue. But I come down on making it easier for growers. Rather than having to go out and look for (data) themselves, they can have a list. It’s the companies’ responsibility to put the correct (information) on the bag. I see no difference with sending that information to (Smith).”
Before calling for a vote, Waldrip said he wanted to echo the comments about “the basis for everything we do” being a benefit to farmers. “I have tried to look through that same pair of glasses in every decision I make. With different people, there are different methodologies on how we get there.
“From the beginning, the question I’ve asked in regards to this issue is: how does it benefit a farmer? I’ve yet to hear a concrete benefit. I’ve heard, ‘It’d be nice to have a list.’ ‘It’d make it easier to have a list.’
“But the bottom line is that if the labeling proposal we passed this morning goes to public comment and proceeds, all that information will be on the bag. Beyond that, we’re talking about a requirement that essentially no other state in the country has. We’re talking about making Arkansas, in that regard, more restrictive than any other state as far as what’s required for those bringing a variety to market. In the end, in the business sense, I believe that’ll cost the farmer money…
“Beyond that, you mentioned ‘multinational corporations.’ There’s big business on both sides of this. This is a competitive trade issue. You can look around this room and tell trade is very competitive. That’s why this room is full today.
“This issue is a competitive trade issue and this body is a regulatory one. It’s an abuse, in my opinion, of the authority of this body to intervene in manipulating a competitive trade issue…I’ve looked and looked for the benefit to the farmer and don’t see any.”
Vester asserted that being the first to require a list wouldn’t be a bad thing. “There are a lot of things this state does that we’re the only one doing…There’s nothing wrong with being a leader or the first one…”
Calling it “a difficult issue,” Little said producers wouldn’t likely get “complete information” without some sort of national registration. “This is being portrayed as a battle between big, multinational corporations. To be honest, the complaints and concerns I’ve heard the most are from smaller seed companies…They’re purchasing technology from the big companies and are very concerned about the impact it could have on their business relationships. They have concerns that they’ll lose access to some varieties and genetic materials…The list will essentially be used for marketing purposes.
“If we get variety names on labels and have clear brand labeling, I know all those lists will be compiled. Everyone is aware there will be dozens and dozens of lists floating around. I would prefer the regulatory entity not distribute information used for marketing purposes.”
The seed committee then voted (with Lawhon the lone dissenter) to send the recommendations back to the full Plant Board.
(For more information and history behind Arkansas seed labeling, see: http://deltafarmpress.com/mag/farming_seed_dealers_arkansas/index.html)