As in other Mid-South states, Arkansas has recently dealt with several big-impact agriculture issues. Chief among those issues: herbicide drift and ridding the state of a GM rice trait.
The Arkansas Plant Board, through its various committees, oversees agricultural regulations in the state.
The board will be in charge of implementing new GM-rice regulations approved in late December (see http://deltafarmpress.com/news/0761229-gm-rice/index.html ).
In early January, Darryl Little, Arkansas Plant Board director, spoke with Delta Farm Press about the Plant Board set-up, testing seed and the thing that frightens him most. Among his comments:
On the Arkansas Plant Board's set-up and charge…
“The Plant Board has regulatory authority by law over planting seed in Arkansas. Additionally, also designated by law, the board is the official agency that handles seed certification.
“On top of that, the board has been charged with enforcing the Rice Certification Act that passed during the (2005) session of the Arkansas legislature. That act specifically deals with planting a rice that could have an impact on markets, such as the LibertyLink traits.
“We sample seed, we have a laboratory that analyzes the seed samples to ensure it germinates, we check purity and inert matter, and we look for weed seed. As the seed moves into the trade channels, our inspectors check it to make sure it's properly labeled. They also sample a good bit of it to ensure it meets the label guarantees.”
How many employees do you have to do all this? It seems a big task. Is this the busiest time of year for them?
“Not really. It is the time of the year when our 35, or so, agriculture specialists in the field are making their rounds. They're going by seed companies and pulling samples, re-sampling seed, working with seedsmen. That's just normal (procedure).
“(With the new GM-rice targeted regulations), it will take a little more work because we're essentially drawing duplicate samples. But that isn't all that unusual.
“The biggest additional workload will likely be required when identifying and sampling the farm-saved seed. We have to make sure they have a good, clean seed to plant next spring.
“We're getting calls from farmers already. We began getting the calls soon after the board meeting with requests to sample farm-saved seed.
“We've got about 25 inspectors that work in the eastern part of the state. That's where most of the row crops are. The other 10 or 15 inspectors are in the central part of the state into the west. We can shift inspectors to different regions if we need to. That's why I don't think this will be a burden on our resources. We can draw the samples.”
There's a potential gap between drawing the samples and actually getting the trait out of the system. That was a big debate in the seed committee meeting between some of the seedsmen, especially regarding the farm-saved seed. Do you have reservations about that?
“Education is the cornerstone of this. (The USA Rice Federation's) Chuck Wilson has the biggest task of anyone involved in this. He's the one charged with getting the information out to producers. Of course, we'll help him in any way we can, but he's got a big project on his shoulders. I know he can handle it.
“I have mixed feelings about farm-saved seed. It's more related to whether a farmer has had Cheniere on his farm or not. If he's had Cheniere on his farm, we don't need to sample (his saved seed). There are simply too many places it could be commingled.
“It may be an extra burden on us to sample farm-saved seed but, on the other hand, if there's a producer out there that has Wells and Francis and hasn't had Cheniere on his farm, he'll have good, clean seed. We need to make sure he can plant it and get it to the mills.”
What about the sampling procedures themselves? What can a farmer expect when an inspector shows up?
“They'll use the same equipment and protocols used when sampling any seed. When I gathered our supervisors in after the (Plant Board) met, one of the things impressed upon them is good, representative samples (be drawn). The farm-saved seed should be sampled with the same criteria used on a seedsman. We must make sure what he's planting is clean.
“Most of the issues deal with (seed kept) in bins — a sample needs to be a representation of what's through the entire core of the bin. Our inspectors are trained to evaluate bins and equipment and make determinations.
“Normally, if there are stir-alls in the bins you can get a good sample from probes at the top. However, if there are no stir-alls, you have to core the bin and take a sample off a belt, a dump site or somewhere else along that process to make sure you've got a good representative sample. Truckload after truckload after truckload in a bin, it ends up in layers.
“You can't sample the top and come up with anything that represents the entire bin.”
How long do you think the clean-up process will take?
“If we can impress upon the farmers the importance of getting Cheniere out of the market, we can clean it up very quickly.
“Will it ever be 100 percent (clean)? Probably not. We'll probably never get to a point where we can say with absolute certainty that there isn't a grain (of Cheniere) here and there.”
It's been pointed out that there are still remnants of the StarLink situation in the corn supply.
“That's right. You can get any truck, any combine, any grain car, anything used in this process and drive it down the road a few miles and you'll shake rice seed out of cracks and crevices that you didn't know were there. And that's even after cleaning them.
“So it isn't 100 percent. But I have to qualify that by saying we can clean it up very quickly by eliminating Cheniere if there isn't a problem elsewhere that we don't know about. I haven't seen any evidence of that.”
On contingency plans…
“If we get into this testing and we end up with a bigger problem than we thought, we'll have to revisit what we're doing. I don't anticipate that, but you make decisions based on the best information you have. If things change, you have to go back and have another look.”
What about the rule involving 2005/2006 (growing of Cheniere) on a farm? There was some discussion about neighbors being included in that.
“Our inspectors have a little audit form we've worked up. They'll use it to help verify if Cheniere has been on the farm, in specific fields or bins.
“It isn't so much pollen drift as it is farmers helping each other with equipment. One will send his combine over to his neighbor to get the crop out.
“So if a farmer didn't have Cheniere but his neighbor did and helped him cut the seed he's saving, we don't need to risk keeping that in the channel.”
How does this situation compare with problems you've dealt with in the past? Is this the most difficult or is there something else even more difficult?
“This is a big issue from an economic standpoint, obviously. It's affected our markets.
“As far as actually being alarmed, some pesticide issues are much more difficult.
“With this, the solutions are fairly clear: find where the problem is and get it out of the channels and move on. Now, I know there's been a big controversy on how to accomplish that.”
On pesticide issues…
Pesticide problems “are very difficult issues and are tough to deal with.” Drift is bad enough “but the scariest pesticide issues I have to deal with actually involve people misusing pesticides to bait animals. It's so dangerous and yet people do it every year.
“We've pursued and prosecuted them. Sometimes we even get the federal government involved.”
Are you talking about things like turkey hunters trying to get rid of coons?
“Sometimes. But there are also cases around cities where people deliberately poison dogs and other pets. It's so scary. I know these economic issues are big and so important. But with this issue we are dealing with misuse of very dangerous compounds. Someone could be hurt or even killed by this type of misuse.”