On the High Plains in West Texas, hot winds blast through cotton fields as far as the eye can see.
In the middle of it all is a tiny vineyard.
Andis Applewhite is the owner. She’s an artist whose family has worked this land for a century. They once planted crops more typical of the neighborhood, like cotton and wheat. Applewhite decided to try something different: She put in a couple of acres of cabernet franc grapes.
“It’s fun,” says Applewhite as we stand in her fields. She inspects a vine that is starting to wrap itself around a trellis. “It’s looking like a real grape plant.”
But Applewhite has yet to harvest a crop. Over the past two years, something has caused her vines to twist and wither. And she’s not alone. Grapevines in Texas are being damaged by a seemingly invisible force.
Livelihoods are at stake. Texas is one of the largest wine-producing states. It has more than 400 wineries. The industry says it boosts the state’s economy by some $13 billion annually.
The damage at Applewhite’s vineyard and elsewhere is likely coming from one of her cotton-growing neighbors. New weedkillers used on the cotton crop are drifting beyond the fields and causing damage elsewhere.
The same herbicides are being used on soy and other crops in the U.S. Some estimates, such as this report published last month from the University of Missouri, suggest that drift this year from one of the herbicides, dicamba, has caused over a million acres of damage to vulnerable crops across the country.
When Applewhite first noticed what was happening, she says, “I was really mad. I wanted to kind of lash out.”
“But then I said, ‘No, I really need to get more information, and this is going to be a process.’ ”
Huge changes to cotton
Right down the road from Applewhite is her neighbor Dan Smith. Out in his fields, we can see tiny plants just starting to come up from the soil.
“This cotton has been out of the ground about three weeks, it’s 3 weeks old,” he says.
Smith, 64, has lived on this land for almost his entire life, except for a stint for school and for a term as a young mayor of Lockney, a nearby town. Since he started, he says the cotton business has gone through huge changes.
“Back then, you could farm a smaller amount of land and still make a good living,” he says.
Today, profit margins are thinner. To make that living, farmers like him have to work much larger patches of land. Smith is growing cotton on about 5,000 acres across multiple counties. And to do it, he says, he needs technology, including high-tech weedkillers.
His favorite was one called Roundup. “The old Roundup, it’d kill any size weed, anytime, anywhere. It was great,” he says, smiling nostalgically.
This is how Roundup worked: First, he would plant cotton seeds that were genetically modified so the herbicide didn’t bother them. Then he could spray the entire field. The weeds would die, and the cotton would thrive.
This was until 2013, when Roundup suddenly stopped working in this area. The weeds had become resistant.
“The first couple of years, when we got hit with that resistance, it was a nightmare. We didn’t exactly know what to do,” said Smith.
New herbicide products with new rules
Then big agricultural companies started pushing new herbicides.
In 2017, companies such as Monsanto and Dow released new formulations of old chemicals that had been used for decades, called dicamba and 2,4-D, respectively. The products have some chemical similarities and are known as synthetic auxin herbicides. The companies also started selling cotton seeds that had been modified to resist these herbicides.
The problem is that these chemicals are more likely to drift into other fields than the older weedkillers did. That is causing a crisis that has swept across agricultural lands nationwide. Last month, University of Missouri researchers said states have reported more than 600 complaints about damage to soybeans and other kinds of plants.
The crisis has sparked lawsuits. And in Arkansas, a farmer was shot and killed during a drift dispute.
“There’s a lot more specific information that the applicator needs to be aware of, and those conditions must be followed very carefully,” says Peter Dotray, a weed science professor at Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University.
Those labels include a lot of rules aimed at preventing drift — things like limiting sprayer boom height and creating buffer zones. Texas requires applicators of these herbicides to get a permit.
Dotray, who sees the new herbicides as important tools for growers, says he personally might be even more cautious than the label requires if there is a sensitive crop nearby. “I’m going to try to manage the risk as best I can, and if I see something close by that is a crop like a vineyard, I’m probably going to try to create an even greater buffer.”
Cotton grower Dan Smith stresses that he goes to great pains to be careful. “Nobody wants to hurt that vineyard,” said Smith.
He’s using a different kind of herbicide in the area near Applewhite’s vineyard, and in other areas, he adds an extra chemical that is supposed to prevent dicamba drift, just to be safe.
“It’s an expense I don’t have to do, but I feel like I better,” Smith says.
Some grape growers think the current regulations may not be enough to protect their vines.
To prevent drift, spraying is only supposed to happen when wind speeds are below 10 mph. Longtime winemaker Bobby Cox says a 10-mph day in blustery West Texas is basically a fairy tale.
“You can’t do it,” he says, laughing uproariously. “Your fairy godmother has to pull out a wand, tap the pumpkin and turn it into a carriage.”
Thirty-year-old vines destroyed
Cox planted his vines more than 30 years ago in an area that is now the heart of the Texas wine grape-growing industry. “Oh, people thought you were flaming nuts,” he says, remembering the early days when he was a pioneering grower.
Despite the challenges, over the years, he built a successful vineyard.
But in 2016, everything changed for Cox. His neighbor sprayed the herbicide 2,4-D — an old formulation of the chemical now used more widely — and it drifted onto his vineyard.
The results were devastating. Unlike crops like cotton, which farmers replant each year, it takes years for vines to reach their prime. “It takes so long to make a crop, it sticks with you so long …” he says, trailing off. “You just lost so much.”
Some of his vines still look sick. The leaves are really small and fan out in a strange way. He has seen a major reduction in yields. About 20 percent of Cox’s vines completely died.
As he walks down the long rows, he sighs and reaches down to pull a dry, brown stump out of the ground that can’t be saved.
The next time he’s expecting a full crop is 2020, four years after the damage was done.
Many wine growers nearby are also facing drift damage, ranging from light exposure that doesn’t impact the fruit, to total devastation like Cox. And this area grows about 80 percent of the wine grapes in Texas.
Because there’s so much variation in how harmful the damage is, it’s hard to say conclusively how many growers have been impacted.
Pierre Helwi is a viticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He monitors dozens of vineyards around here and is on the lookout for damage. “And I saw it, I would say in 90, 95 percent of the vineyards there. So it’s everywhere.”
Incidents of drift are probably vastly underreported through official channels, based on figures provided by the Texas Department of Agriculture. It says that as of Aug. 8, there have been five dicamba drift complaints and 13 complaints for 2,4-D across all types of crops — not just grapevines.
Perry Cervantes, coordinator for pesticide certification and compliance at the Texas Department of Agriculture, said that given the few complaints, tightening the laws on these chemicals would hard to justify. “As big a state as we are, I don’t see why we would want to put any more regulation on it if we don’t have, you know, proof that we need to.”
And not all winegrowers agree that more regulation is needed for the new herbicides. Katy Jane Seaton, executive director of the High Plains Winegrowers Association, also grows cotton, like many wine grape growers here. She says she does not believe the chemical itself is responsible — it’s about the herbicide’s applicators, she says, and the relationships that they have with their neighbors.
“It’s never the product’s fault,” she says. “Pencils don’t misspell words, guns don’t shoot people and the product isn’t at fault.”
Accountability often elusive
After Cox’s vines were devastated, the Texas Department of Agriculture fined the neighbor $800 for “using herbicide in a manner inconsistent with the label,” according to documents obtained by NPR. Cox is also in the process of working out a settlement with the neighbor.
But for other growers, it can be difficult to hold people accountable for the damage because it’s sometimes impossible to know where the drift came from. Applewhite, the artist, filed a complaint with the Texas Department of Agriculture in 2016 after her vines were damaged.
The outcome of the investigation was vague.
“Our investigation shows that a violation of Texas pesticide laws may have caused or contributed to the effects or activities which led you to file a complaint,” the department says in its closure letter. “We did not, however, find enough evidence to identify the person responsible or to determine that a violation did in fact occur. As a result, the investigation of your complaint has been closed.”
And two days after I left, the damage was back.
“I noticed on new growth, the deformed leaves,” Applewhite says. The vines were suddenly showing signs of new herbicide drift. And her neighboring farmers say they didn’t do it.
“You know, they told me they didn’t spray. So I have to believe them,” she says.
This time, she didn’t see any point in filing a complaint because she doesn’t think it will help the problem. All she can do is keep working on her vines.