Spray drift damage fears could push up cost of liability insurance

Yesterday an experienced casualty insurance agent in our farming area told us, "Farmers will soon have to understand that herbicide damage claims could have a huge impact on the cost of their liability policies."

July 17, 2018 — The ag insurance specialist brought up this subject himself. He told us his next appointment was with a farmer hit with a potential lawsuit over herbicide volatility and visible damage on a neighbor's crop. The agent shook his head: "These are some of my most anguishing cases in writing ag insurance. Farmers don't want to sue their neighbors."

He added that one underwriting firm has already imposed a $5,000 deductible on spray damage claims. "That's intended to get farmers' attention. They have to realize that the rising number of large damage claims jeopardizes every farmers' ability to get adequate coverage against spray drift liability — at a bearable cost."

Although the percentage of total crop acreage damaged so far this season is small, the perceived risk among insurance company actuary analysts is growing larger each season. Our insurance agent friend is anxious that underwriters could impose tight limits on spray liability damages, raise rates, or refuse to insure this class of risk.

University of Missouri weed scientists estimate that as of June 15, dicamba drift shows probable damage on 383,000 acres of soybeans in 10 states. This follows the 2017 season's intense debates over spray damage and imposition of tougher label requirements. 

Dicamba cupping on soybeans. Photo: Non-GMO Report

Federal crop insurance already excludes payment for crop losses from herbicide damage. Claims which rely on your general farm liability policy typically aren't settled until well after the season ends. If you have to take a claim to court against your neighbor or custom spray applicator, the case could drag on for months and involve major litigation expense.

Herbicide liability is such a growing concern that extension specialists are trying to help farmers address it. One effort comes from University of Missouri ag economist Ray Massey. He offered helpful ideas at a crop management conference last winter in Columbia. One of his cautions: Although some types of crop damage are covered, "it's less clear whether herbicide injury due to volatility is a covered loss."

Today, crop consultant Bob Streit of Boone, IA sent a message to his clients and friends which includes these two paragraphs on herbicides, especially dicamba:

"The number of major lawsuits over the use of dicamba and its drift continue to accumulate, with some of them being granted class action status. There are still several big lawsuits in Missouri and now in cotton country from 2016. In Indiana the number of reported events is now about 25% over those in 2017. In a few of the earlier cases, pre-release of the seed before the labeled product occurred, so attractive nuisance statutes will apply. Being a custom applicator and having to observe all cleanout requirements, setback barriers, and wind speed requirements were a nightmare.
           
"There are also more questions about the right of any person to put at risk the survival of neighboring non-dicamba beans, conventional beans, trees, shrubs, fruit crops, alfalfa and other legume crops — plus pollinator species.  The list goes on. More than one person has asked about the supply of Liberty seed beans for the 2019 season. The way this season has turned out, basing weed control on a planned post-emerge application is not always a sure bet. After a number of growers were forced by rain out of the fields for up to a month, the beans were already flowering and out of label restrictions before fields got dry enough to spray."

Update July 18: This is lifted from a Pesticide Action Network message sent late July 18:

Dicamba drift is back: Bad news in Iowa — so far this year, pesticide drift has been even worse than in 2017. In his recent blog, Professor Bob Hartzler (Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University), analyzes the drift incident reports that IDALS has received as of July 2. So far, 50% more incidents have been reported than at the same time last year. Professor Hartzler also shared with us that IDALS received an additional 20 cases of dicamba-related drift last week alone. We may be seeing many more dicamba drift cases in the coming weeks, despite the stricter labels and required training that EPA mandated in 2018.

These numbers show that we need better protections against volatile chemicals like dicamba, as well as stronger consequences for the misuse of all pesticides.

A farmer’s drift experience: What does it really mean for a farmer to experience pesticide drift? Read farmer Rob Faux’s story of his recent discouraging drift incident for an idea.

Update July 20: The Center for Biological Diversity issued a news release citing projections that dicamba will be sprayed on 60 million acres of monarch butterfly habitat. The release also updates damage reported this season.

Update July 21: An extended feature on DTN/Progressive Farmer, written by Emily Unglesbee, offers insight on dicamba challenges and their legal implications.

Dicamba damage is a common topic among farmers visiting at conferences this summer. One of our WakeUP clients who attended a South Dakota farmer meeting tells us that other growers are concerned about dicamba traveling in ag runoff water for as far as two miles and damaging crops. It's the first mention we've heard of that possibility.

On a related front, one management move we're making on our own little patch of research acres is to encourage milkweeds in spots that don't conflict with crops. Successful Farming notes that monarch butterfly populations are decimated because herbicides dramatically wipe out milkweed habitat for monarchs.