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As Oklahoma marijuana industry booms, farmers face challenges with applying pesticides

Matteo Paganelli / Unsplash

Farmers and ranchers who live close to marijuana farms are running into challenges spraying their crops and fields, as applicators fear lawsuits if any pesticide or herbicide drift contaminates cannabis or causes the plants to die.

James Fuser, a farmer and rancher in Afton, Oklahoma, says there are multiple marijuana farms near him. When he tried to hire a business to spray to prevent weeds and pests on his soybeans, he ran into a problem. The company said they wouldn't spray if Fuser’s property was within a two-mile radius of a marijuana grow.

The marijuana business has exploded in Oklahoma. As of September 3, 2021, there are 8,360 growers in the state. But Fuser says the pesticide applicators he talked to are afraid of getting sued.

“They're [marijuana growers] going to sue them [applicators] for what they can get, you know, what they're trying to sell it for,” Fuser says. “And right now marijuana is a pretty high crop.”

Michael Kelsey, the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association also says this is a problem for ranchers. Many ranchers hire herbicide applicators to spray and rid their fields of weeds.

“Those commercial applicators were being threatened with lawsuits ... that many of them refuse to spray in certain areas for fear of liability,” Kelsey says. “And that directly impacts how many cows a rancher can run because the weeds need to be controlled.”

Charles Luper, an extension associate in the pesticide safety program at Oklahoma State University, says the possibility of pesticides killing cannabis from drift is an overcautious fear.

“In a perfect world, all spray would stay on the property it's being sprayed on,” Luper says. “But, of course, winds change. You know, things happen, it's not a perfect world.”

But Luper says this spraying concern isn’t new -- he says similar worries circulated when the wine vineyards emerged in Oklahoma.

“I see a little similarity of 15-16 years ago, when a lot of vineyards started going into Oklahoma next … to what I call traditional cropland,” he says.

The Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, Soybean Association, Dairy Producers Association and Oklahoma Agricultural Aviation Association signed a letter on Sept. 17 urging the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) to put a temporary pause on licenses in the state until the agency hires more inspectors and the Seed-To-Sale program gets through the courts.

Adria Berry, director of OMMA, said in a statement that her agency does not have the authority to issue a moratorium on grower licenses, but said she is looking forward to working with legislators and leaders of the association to find solutions.

In addition, Berry said in a press conference Oct. 1 that pesticides will be a point of discussion in one of the working groups the agency plans to organize to sort out challenges the industry is facing.

“That authority will lie across some agency lines, and so we have to really narrow down where the authority lies,” Berry said. “But we have heard about this issue and are cognizant and paying attention to it.”

The Oklahoma legislature is also studying the issue as part of an interim study. That study may inform legislation that is proposed for the 2022 legislative session that begins in February.

Seth Bodine was KOSU's agriculture and rural issues reporter from June 2020 to February 2022.
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