When his beets came in patchy, pushing through the soil with misshapen and discolored leaves, Perry Van Tassell did what most Idaho farmers would do: He watered more. And more. And more.
“They looked like they were thirsty,” said Van Tassell, who farms outside the small, southern Idaho town of Paul. “They looked like they were in a frozen state.”
It was 2001, and Van Tassell, like most farmers, had hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in his crops. His corn fields stood shorter than his toddler son when they should have been stretching 12 feet high.
He came to believe his land had been tainted with Oust, a potent herbicide that kills plants by attacking their roots and leaves.
The pesticide had been spread across more than 100,000 acres of nearby public land at the direction of the Bureau of Land Management, which was hoping to prevent the spread of invasive weeds on land that had been scorched by wildfire.
But no rains came to melt the herbicide into the soil. The wind picked up. And Van Tassell and more than 130 other farmers — stretching from Paul east to Aberdeen — claim the powdery herbicide blew across their crops, leaving them with warped plants, barren soil and millions of dollars of debt.
Now a federal jury will decide if the federal government or herbicide maker E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co. is to blame for their misfortune. The trial began May 4 and was expected to last up to four months.
Van Tassell, who runs a dairy besides his farm, used to grow corn and hay to feed his cattle. Last week, he showed pictures to a federal jury of how his crops looked in those years.
“You could see some hay was growing through, but only in strips,” he said. “You’d get maybe 15 to 20 percent of the plants that would grow.”
By fall of 2002, so much dirt was blowing off the Oust-treated land near his farm that his hay bales were contaminated with dirt.
“We were scared to feed it to the cows,” he said.
He pressed DuPont, the maker of Oust, for information on the safety of his crop. They sent him a study showing that feeding hay grown after Oust application was safe for lactating goats. He decided to chance it with after Kraft Foods assured him they would still buy his milk, Van Tassell said.
Van Tassell and the rest of the affected farmers — more than 130 of them — filed a federal lawsuit against the USA, DuPont, Thomas Helicopters (the company that applied Oust from the air) and De Angelo Brothers Inc. (the company that applied the Oust from the ground). But Thomas Helicopters and De Angelo Brothers reached a settlement with the farmers last fall.
Charles Miller, spokesman for the civil division of the U.S. Department of Justice, said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit. Heather Feeney, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management in Boise, referred all requests for comment to Miller.
The BLM issued a statewide moratorium on Oust in 2002; BLM officials refused to tell The Associated Press whether that moratorium still stands, citing the lawsuit.
Dan Turner, a spokesman for DuPont, said in a prepared statement that the complaint is without merit.
“The Idaho State Department of Agriculture has already investigated this situation and did not find DuPont to be at fault,” he said, maintaining that Oust meets global safety standards when used according to the directions.
DuPont has maintained that the BLM and its contractors didn’t follow instructions when applying the herbicide. The BLM, meanwhile, points fingers at DuPont. BLM officials said in 2002 that a prolonged drought caused the situation, and that the herbicide was applied correctly.
Plaintiff Tina Clinger of American Falls grew up in the rural region and married into a family of beet farmers. She and her husband, Jerome, bought land near his parents to start their own farm.
At the trial, she described plantings in 2000, 2001 and 2002 that failed to thrive.
“This is not a good-looking field,” Clinger said as the jurors were shown a picture that contained far more dirt than plants. “This is a field that makes you want to cry.”
To break even the farm has to yield 25 tons of sugar beets per acre, Clinger said. It yielded 23 tons per acre in 2000, 19 tons in 2001 and 20 tons in 2002.
The crop failure was devastating to her family. Because her father-in-law had recently had heart surgery, Jerome Clinger was working both farms. He quit sleeping and lost weight. They argued, their strong marriage fraying under the pressure. The children worried their parents would divorce, she said, fighting tears.
Her father-in-law’s dream of owning his land outright was destroyed in the span of two seasons. The family has had to borrow more and more to stay afloat.
“My father-in-law was 73 at the time and he had one payment left on his farm,” Clinger said, “We went into arrears so bad that he had to refinance the farm. Thirty more years.”
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