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Aug 31, 2019

Farm wars

Co-produced with PRX Logo

American soybean farmers call pigweed “Satan’s weed” because it’s so hard to get rid of it. Many of them are excited about the herbicide dicamba, which is good at killing pigweed. There’s just one problem, and it’s igniting a civil war in farm country. This story was produced in collaboration with the nonprofit Food and Farming Reporting Network.

Plus, each year, beekeepers from all over the country ship thousands of hives to California in time for almond pollination season. In recent years, the valuable hives have become a high-stakes target for theft.

Lastly, asthma is just as common in rural areas as it is in cities. New research shows that a common pesticide, sulfur, can cause asthma in children who live and go to school near farms.

This show originally was broadcast April 20, 2019. It’s updated to include some new information on dicamba spraying over the summer.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: California’s almond harvest has created a golden opportunity for bee thieves
  • Read: Scientists warned this weed killer would destroy crops. EPA approved it anyway
  • Read: Bees face yet another lethal threat in dicamba, a drift-prone pesticide

Credits

This week’s show was produced by Fernanda Camarena. The Senior Editor was Deborah George. Reveal’s Byard Duncan produced the story on bee theft. 

Trey Kay, Loretta Williams and Liza Gross reported on the herbicide dicamba. The story was produced in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an independent nonprofit news organization.

The story on sulfur and childhood asthma was reported by Eilis O’Neill.

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa with help from Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz and Katherine Rae Mondo. Hosted by Al Letson. 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and The Democracy Fund. 

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. This week, we're updating an episode from last spring. It's about some turf battles playing out in farm country. The first story is about a herbicide used to get rid of aggressive weeds in soybean fields. It's called dicamba, and it's sparked a civil war, pitting neighbor against neighbor like these farmers in Arkansas.

 

Speaker 2: Never, in my 20 years, have I ever seen a product tear friendships apart, families apart.

 

Al Letson: Soybeans are a $40 billion business in the US.

 

Speaker 2: My daddy always told me, "When you back a man in a corner and get on his livelihood, dangerous and bad things can happen on both sides."

 

Al Letson: Since last year, soybean prices have taken a beating because of the U.S. trade war with China. China was one of our biggest soybean customers, but now it's turning to Brazil and other countries. American farmers are desperate for anything that can help them keep their profits up, which is why a weed killer like dicamba is attractive. But here's the problem, dicamba is blamed for drifting to other fields and damaging crops on nearby farms. State departments of agriculture report that dicamba hurt some 3.5 million acres in 2017. There've been petitions, lawsuits, even a death blamed on an argument over dicamba and some pretty heated rhetoric.

 

Loretta W.: So the question is, the dicamba farmer, his dream, his American dream, is it greater or more important than the American dream of the others? I would say one dream should not kill another dream.

 

Al Letson: Over the last year, reporter, Loretta Williams and Trey Kay from the podcast Us & Them have been following the dicamba war in Arkansas. Farmers there are asking themselves, "Where's the line between doing what's good for my business and doing what's good for my neighbors?"

 

Trey Kay: Mike McCarty looks exhausted. It's early November and the fall's been rainy and wet, which has made it hard for him to harvest his crops.

 

Mike McCarty: This is where we need to be harvesting. You can tell the beans are laid over. That's not normal-looking.

 

Loretta W.: Mike's family farms 13,000 acres of soybeans and rice in northeast Arkansas along the Mississippi Delta. The terrain is wide and flat. You can see rows and rows of crops all the way to the horizon.

 

Trey Kay: Farmers here grow soybeans for export overseas, where they're used as feed for pigs and chickens. This much rain isn't good for Mike's crops, but it's been great for weeds.

 

Mike McCarty: Let me try to find one so I can show you.

 

Trey Kay: As we drive by field after field, Mike points to weeds popping up in and around his soybean rows.

 

Mike McCarty: All these are pretty much pigweeds on the end. See the red root there? This is one right here.

 

Trey Kay: Yeah.

 

Mike McCarty: See?

 

Loretta W.: Pigweed is easy to see sticking up in a soybean field. It's tall and shaped like a feathery Christmas tree. Farmers call it "Satan's weed" because it grows big and fast, crowding out the crops. Each plant produces hundreds of thousands of seeds. Since the 1970s, farmers used the chemical glyphosate to fight pigweed. Most people know it by its commercial name, Roundup. Farmers use it with another Monsanto product, a genetically modified soybean that's resistant to the herbicide. But over the years, pigweed's become resistant to glyphosate, so farmers were happy when something new came along.

 

Speaker 6: These are soybean plants. Without a weed management program, weeds will compete directly for water, light, and nutrients, robbing these plants of high yields. That's why we created this.

 

Loretta W.: In late 2016, the EPA approved new formulations of a chemical called dicamba to use against pigweed. Several companies, including Monsanto, started manufacturing it. Monsanto also developed a genetically modified soybean that wouldn't be harmed by dicamba.

 

Trey Kay: The following spring, Mike planted Monsanto's new soybean and sprayed one of the new dicamba formulations on his weeds. He was delighted with his harvest.

 

Mike McCarty: We've cut the average best spring crop we've ever averaged, 71 bushels. Our previous best was, like, 62. We're able to clean our beans up by spraying them. We're weed free across the whole ranch.

 

Loretta W.: But in the summer of 2017, as farmers like Mike began to use dicamba, some of their neighbors started noticing their crops were getting damaged. The Arkansas Plant Board was flooded with complaints, so they sent investigators out into the fields. The diagnosis, the crinkled leaves were consistent with damage from dicamba.

 

Trey Kay: The board decided to set limits on the use of dicamba. It set a cut-off date, April 15th, for spraying the chemical. This was to protect fruits and vegetables that flower early and can be damaged by the herbicide. But Mike's just getting his soybeans in the ground around then. Let me make sure I understand. So because of the April 15th cut-off-

 

Mike McCarty: Right.

 

Trey Kay: ... you didn't apply dicamba this past year, no?

 

Mike McCarty: Nothing, and none applied in '18. '17, wall to wall. But in '18, no, we couldn't. I mean, we were locked out, so we applied it all the way up until the cut-off date.

 

Loretta W.: Mike's become a key player in the dicamba debate in Arkansas. And he's rallied more than 300 like-minded farmers to protest that cut-off date.

 

Mike McCarty: [inaudible] Come on in, how you doing?

 

Speaker 7: How you doing?

 

Mike McCarty: Good. Mike.

 

Speaker 7: Had to get, yeah...

 

Loretta W.: At his home in a wealthy subdivision, we sit at the family's dining room table.

 

Mike McCarty: We're at a disadvantage in Arkansas. My pressure's starts getting up really when I start talking. I mean, it's just ...

 

Trey Kay: Mike's got a thick binder of material he's collected to bolster his pro-dicamba position. He points to maps and graphs that show how farmers in other states can spray dicamba more liberally than Arkansas farmers.

 

Mike McCarty: You've got Missouri, right here to the north. I believe is June 15th. Tennessee, right here, you can spray up until July the 15th. Mississippi right here, no cut-off period.

 

Trey Kay: Mike wants to be able to get more profitable yields like farmers in those other states and like he had in 2017.

 

Mike McCarty: In '17 when we were going and going, we had no idea that there was going to be an issue.

 

Trey Kay: Mike says once he and his other pro-dicamba farmers found out that they could hurt other people's crops, they wanted to be able to slow down and use it more carefully.

 

Mike McCarty: We're never in a situation where we want to harm our neighbors. We would never do anything intentionally to do that. No farmer I know ever would.

 

Trey Kay: But as much as Mike wants to spray, other farmers especially those who grow fruits and vegetables, don't want it near them.

 

Shawn Peebles: I'm Shawn Peebles, third generation farmer, we raise vegetables. We're one of the larger organic farms in the South.

 

Loretta W.: It's raining and Shawn Peebles can't get any harvesting done today.

 

Shawn Peebles: Well, what do you think Allan, it's wet.

 

Allan: Yeah, we went real...

 

Loretta W.: So we head over to his office, a repurposed nail factory in Central Arkansas.

 

Trey Kay: Shawn grows organic crops for large companies like Costco. They use his sweet potatoes for their house-brand potato chips. If dicamba got on his organic crops, he'd have to plow them under, unless he could sell them as non-organic for much less money. This could put him out of business.

 

Shawn Peebles: Look, I don't care what you guys do with dicamba, just don't get it on me. I don't think it should be here but I can't stop it. But you stay away from me because if you get on me, and I can't sell my product, and I go out of business, and I don't have anything left to live for, and I'm going to lose my house, and I'm going to lose every acre that I own, and my grandfather owned, you're fixing to see a whole new side of me. That's what happened to Mike Wallace.

 

Loretta W.: The guy he mentioned, Mike Wallace, was a farmer who suspected that dicamba had damaged his crops. He got into a confrontation with a worker from a neighboring farm about it. They got into a scuffle, and Wallace was shot and killed. This was in 2016. Thankfully, there aren't any other examples of this kind of violence. But Wallace's death cast a shadow over the whole dicamba debate in Arkansas. It's made it hard for farmers to talk about their differences over whether or not to use the weed killer.

 

Trey Kay: David Wildy knew Mike Wallace, and was troubled by his death. Wildy and his sons grow soybeans as well as cotton and peanuts in northeast Arkansas. Workers fix a peanut reaping machine as Wilde walks me around the area. He tells me his family has been farming for five generations. It bothers him to see how folks seemed to be choosing themselves over their neighbors.

 

David Wildy: Because economics is driving it rather than the morals that we tried to teach our children that right's right and wrong's wrong.

 

Trey Kay: But since there's so much in this business that it is beyond your control, isn't, really, what we're seeing is that people are trying to control what they can?

 

David Wildy: Certainly, yes. That's true, that's true. But even though, I mean I could spray dicamba and make a cleaner crop more economically and cheaper. But I'm not going to do that to my neighbor that's growing a crop that sensitive, I'm just not going to do that. You have other people that don't feel that way. They're more, I'm looking out for me and me only.

 

Trey Kay: Wildy says his own soybean crop was damaged by dicamba in 2017. He's suing Monsanto.

 

Loretta W.: If there are two sides to this issue, pro and anti-dicamba, the folks in the middle are the scientists. For the past couple of years, they've been raising the alarm about dicamba. Remember, dicamba isn't really new. It's a chemical that's been around for more than 40 years, and almost everyone it had a tendency to evaporate and drift. Ford Baldwin has been a weed scientist in Arkansas since the 1970s. He says he was surprised when he heard a new version of dicamba was in the pipeline.

 

Ford Baldwin: I started talking about it in 2011, saying unless the companies know something about dicamba that I don't, this is going to be the biggest train wreck agriculture's ever seen.

 

Loretta W.: Yet when he talks about how dicamba tends to move away from where it was sprayed, a lot of farmers get mad. It doesn't help that Baldwin's an expert witness in several dicamba lawsuits.

 

Trey Kay: Baldwin asks what about a farmer who's planting Monsanto's dicamba tolerant soybean but his neighbor isn't. He says he asked Monsanto about this.

 

Ford Baldwin: They said, "It's not going to be a problem because our technology, one is going to be superior, and everybody'll plant it. I mean, the ones that don't recognize the superiority and plant it, when they get tired of getting drifted on by their neighbors, they'll plant it."

 

Loretta W.: Baldwin says he thinks this was part of Monsanto's business strategy.

 

Ford Baldwin: I think they felt like it would be just like Roundup Ready that within a two or three year period, a hundred percent of our soybean acreage would be planted the dicamba-tolerant beans, and the problem would go away.

 

Loretta W.: There have been successful lawsuits recently alleging Roundup causes cancer in some people who use it. A lot more of those are in the legal pipeline. But the combination of Roundup spray and Roundup-tolerant seeds has been a huge moneymaker for Monsanto. The company, understandably, wants the same for dicamba and dicamba-tolerant seeds. They're aiming to put them in the hands of farmers around the world. When we asked the company to comment on the controversy surrounding dicamba, they said, "We're just here for the farmers."

 

Speaker 12: The portion of this hearing will be to receive oral comments, no written comments will be received or admitted into the record. Each party...

 

Trey Kay: It's February, and the Arkansas Plant Board is holding a hearing. The pro-dicamba faction wants the board to reconsider the cut-off date for spraying. They want a later date so they could use dicamba farther into the growing season. The meeting is in a large ballroom of a hotel in Little Rock. The stakes are high and the tension in the room is palpable.

 

Loretta W.: There are farmers dressed in jeans and work boots and a seizable number of lawyers in business suits. Also in the house are a good number of people wearing buttons from the Audubon Society and Sierra Club.

 

Trey Kay: Monsanto was bought out last year by Bayer Crop Science and they're here in full force. Senior Vice President, Scott Partridge tells the board there shouldn't be any cut-off date for spraying.

 

Scott Partridge: The proposed regulations are going to create restrictions that, depending upon the location of crops and weather, could actually take this tool out of the hands of the very growers you're trying to help. I urge you to reject the proposed restrictions.

 

Trey Kay: He reminds the board that farmers in other states are seeing the highest yields and cleanest fields in two decades.

 

Scott Partridge: In fact, Texas and Georgia right now are submitting requests to the EPA for greater use of dicamba products in their states.

 

Loretta W.: We tried to talk to Partridge during breaks, but he won't talk to us. The meeting lasts until early evening. Many in the room appear glassy-eyed after hearing scientists testify about things like volatilization, drift, and atmospheric loading. In the end, the board votes to extend the cut-off date for spring to May 25th, giving pro-dicamba farmers a victory, time to use the herbicide during the growing season.

 

Trey Kay: Shawn Peebles, the organic farmer, leaves the meeting before the vote. He could see where things are headed and he's had enough.

 

Shawn Peebles: Look, here's the moral to the story. The State of Arkansas said they're not going to protect me. So I'm going to protect myself. Those people on that plant board don't realize there is a very, very good chance that somebody's going to wind up dead over this, just like Mike Wallace. And what did I say when you came in here? We're going to defend ourself, whatever it takes that we feel that we can do to defend ourself. Because there's going to be fights on fence rows, guarantee it. I guarantee it. I'd bet you any amount of money in the world. There will be fights, arguments, and there might be another killing if we ain't careful.

 

Trey Kay: Last fall, I had coffee with an old farmer. He told me about a grower in community who had cancer and that five or six farmers helped bring in his cotton at harvest. He said if people get in trouble, they get help. It's a brotherhood. But the dicamba debate makes me think that old neighborliness and sense of trust has eroded.

 

Loretta W.: Some soybean farmers in Arkansas were hesitant to use Monsanto's dicamba-tolerance seeds. However, this year many of those same farmers probably are going to plant them, just to defend themselves against neighbors who plan to spray.

 

Mike McCarty: Good...

 

Trey Kay: Good to see you.

 

Mike McCarty: Good to see you. Glad you made it. You want to come on in here [crosstalk 00:16:08]?

 

Trey Kay: Remember Mike McCarty? He's the pro-dicamba soybean farmer who told us he hadn't sprayed it when he wasn't supposed to. I stopped by to see him again. I've got some tough questions to ask you today.

 

Mike McCarty: Go ahead.

 

Trey Kay: Okay. I clear a spot on the corner of his desk and lay down a 99-page report written by a plant board investigator.

 

Mike McCarty: Oh, this is mine, this is the 99 pages or-

 

Trey Kay: Yeah, it is 99.

 

Mike McCarty: What do you want to know about it?

 

Trey Kay: I got the report from a farmer who made a Freedom of Information Act request to the plant board for records of any grower suspected of violating the April 15th dicamba ban. Mike's was one of them. So what can you tell me about it?

 

Mike McCarty: I can't tell you anything about it.

 

Trey Kay: Back in July 2018, a plant board inspector performing routine monitoring, drove by Mike's fields. He noticed wilted, drooping pigweed among healthy soybeans. It was a sign that dicamba had been sprayed.

 

Mike McCarty: So what are you all asking me, what is my response to that?

 

Trey Kay: Yeah.

 

Mike McCarty: So I don't really have a response to it.

 

Trey Kay: I show Mike color photos from the report-

 

Mike McCarty: I sprayed what I [crosstalk 00:17:22].

 

Trey Kay: ... dated months after he told me he stopped spraying. But if this would've been thought of as hot with dicamba, I mean how would it be that, how would it be that-

 

Mike McCarty: I have no idea. If it's as hot as what they say it is, it could've come from anywhere. That's what our stance on it is.

 

Trey Kay: Mike says the dicamba could have drifted onto his fields from a nearby farm. Or it could have remained on that wilting pigweed, two and a half months after he last sprayed. I ask if weeds would still be standing that long. He says, "Absolutely, any scientist would tell you that."

 

Loretta W.: So we took the photos to Dr. Jason Norsworthy at the University of Arkansas.

 

Jason N.: It appears to me that this application would likely have been made probably within seven days of this photograph being taken. Generally, what we see, especially with a larger pigweed, about 14 to 21 days, you're going to begin to see that plant begin to turn somewhat back upright.

 

Loretta W.: Mike McCarty insists he did not spray past the cut-off date. And he has good reason to stick to his story. Even though federal law now allows dicamba to be sprayed in the growing season, McCarty is supposed to keep records of its use. But when we asked him what herbicides he reported using, dicamba wasn't on the list, and the Department of Justice is watching farmers. Last fall, they indicted a man in Missouri. He was charged with illegally spraying dicamba on his soybean fields in 2016 and covering it up. If found guilty, that farmer could face up to 20 years in jail.

 

Al Letson: That story was from Loretta Williams and Trey Kay. We first aired that story last spring. This summer, it's been especially rainy in the East and the Midwest, so soybean farmers planted late. There's evidence to suggest a lot of illegal dicamba spraying took place. Farmers from at least eight states are bringing lawsuits against Monsanto and another company that put the product on the market. Liza Gross is an investigative reporter who also worked on the story. She joins me now. Hi Liza.

 

Liza Gross: Hi, Al.

 

Al Letson: So, Liza, if dicamba's so problematic, how do they get approved in the first place?

 

Liza Gross: That's a really good question, Al. The short answer is the system is broken. The EPA is supposed to make sure products it allows on the market are safe, but to do that, it relies mostly on studies from the companies that make the products. The idea is it's supposed to save taxpayer money, but it's an obvious conflict of interest. So the EPA is also supposed to consider evidence from independent scientists, and that's where the system failed. Tons of independent studies show that spraying so much dicamba would cause widespread damage, but the EPA ignored the evidence and sided with Monsanto.

 

Al Letson: Tell us about some of the problems with Monsanto's studies.

 

Liza Gross: Monsanto submitted hundreds of lab studies that it claimed proved dicamba wouldn't be volatile. By volatile, I mean it evaporates into the air in one place, then comes down in another. But scientists have known for decades that lab studies don't capture what happens in the field. I got transcripts through state public records requests that showed Monsanto knew volatility was a problem. They didn't let independent researchers test their product because they didn't want to jeopardize their EPA approval.

 

Al Letson: How did Monsanto stop those independent scientists from testing the new dicamba product?

 

Liza Gross: The only way they could test the products was if Monsanto and the other producers gave them access. One dicamba manufacturer did, that was BASF. But Monsanto did not. Several years before it was approved, Monsanto is telling its shareholders that its new dicamba wouldn't damage other crops. And it seemed pretty clear, they didn't want anyone to get the chance to show that this might not be true.

 

Al Letson: So after it was approved, did the academic scientists get a chance to test it? If so what did they find?

 

Liza Gross: Oh yeah, they did all sorts of different experiments. In pretty much every one, they found that it drifted from fields where it was sprayed and damaged nearby crops. Monsanto responded by attacking their credibility. Many of these scientists told me they were appalled by this. When I asked a university researcher why he thought there was such a big difference between the Monsanto studies and his studies, his response, "I'm not trying to sell it."

 

Al Letson: What did the EPA do when all this independent science came to light?

 

Liza Gross: Here's the deal, after states got record numbers of complaints, the EPA invited the nation's top weed scientists to discuss the problem in conference calls. I got transcripts of these calls. They show that scientist after scientist told EPA officials simply changing how you can apply dicamba wouldn't solve the problem. That's because the product itself was the problem. These scientists did studies where they followed the instructions exactly. But dicamba still evaporated and harmed plants. The EPA didn't care. They just changed the instructions on the label, which didn't do anything to solve the problem. They were giving lip service to the scientists but really they were tipping the scales for Monsanto.

 

Al Letson: Why would the EPA want to allow the product on the market?

 

Liza Gross: They say it's all about killing weeds, Al. The EPA said dicamba would get rid of weeds that had become resistant to every other weed killer including Roundup, but there's already evidence that weeds can evolve resistance to dicamba. Dicamba is still drifting off of fields and wreaking havoc. This past year more complaints came from especially crop farmers like honey producers. That's because dicamba kills wild weeds that bees need to survive. One of the largest beekeepers in the county told me he thinks dicamba is partly to blame for the smallest honey crop he'd ever seen.

 

Al Letson: Thanks Liza. That was reporter Liza Gross. After the break, we're going to tell you about another problem beekeepers are having.

 

Kamron Koehnen: Back in the day, what did you do with a horse thief or a cattle rustler? Hey, those guys were strung up.

 

Al Letson: Bee rustlers, yeah, that's what I said, in California. Next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. In January 2016, Kamron Koehnen was getting ready move hundreds of his honey beehives into almond fields near Chico, California. The trees were in blossom, and pollination season was about to start. It takes 30 billion bees, trucked in from all over the country, to pollinate California's one million acres of almond trees. A lot of Kamron's bees were in wooden boxes in a staging area about 30 miles from his house. He'd been there to check on them a couple days before. Everything seemed normal. But around 7:00 in the morning, his phone rang, it was an employee in charge of moving the bees.

 

Kamron Koehnen: I got a call saying, "Hey, the bees aren't here."

 

Al Letson: At first, Kamron was just confused. Then he got a hunch. He hopped into his truck, and went he got to his site, he saw it had been cleaned out.

 

Kamron Koehnen: It was 240 hives, and they stole it all. You saw the tracks and tire marks. I mean, there's not a whole lot you can do except phone the sheriff, make a police report. I was pissed.

 

Al Letson: There wasn't much in the way of evidence, but Kamron did notice that the thieves had used a special forklift designed for moving hives. They would have needed protection too, bee suits. There was one conclusion.

 

Kamron Koehnen: They were beekeepers.

 

Al Letson: He put it another way.

 

Kamron Koehnen: Dirt bags.

 

Al Letson: Weeks went by, and Kamron started hearing from fellow beekeepers across California. The stories were all the same, hundreds of hives stolen in separate incidents over several months. It was beginning to look like the largest bee heist anyone had ever seen, maybe the largest in US history. Reveal's Byard Duncan has been following this ongoing saga. He tells us how bee thefts have gone from a niche problem to a major opportunity for criminals.

 

Byard Duncan: To understand what would motivate someone to steal so many hives, you first have to understand the value of bees, especially in California, and especially right now. To do that, I meet up with Denise Qualls at an almond orchard near Escalon, about 90 miles east of San Francisco. She shuffles through the trunk of the Mercedes and comes up with a pile of bee suits.

 

Denise Qualls: It looks like I wore these painting once. That's the color of my house there.

 

Byard Duncan: She puts on a pink one that looks brand new. She hands me a plain white one. It's heavy duty.

 

Denise Qualls: Why don't we through this one on you, and then that way you've got full-blown feel of it, because sometimes you don't know what the bees are like. They'll sting you through the bee suit and through your jeans. Let's try to prevent that if we can.

 

Byard Duncan: Let's do it. Denise is bee broker, a sort of intermediary between beekeepers and almond farmers. She's been in business for 15 years. She helps manage the logistical challenges of transporting billions of bees into California's orchards. Today she's doing a hive inspection with a farmer named Carl Van Fleet. Carl and Denise walk me through rows and rows of almond trees. Each one dotted with light pink blossoms.

 

Carl Van Fleet: We're kind of in full bloom right now, maybe a hair past, but we're hoping for sunny weather.

 

Byard Duncan: Every few feet they crack open bee boxes stacked on the ground. They pump in sweet smoke to calm the bees, then pull out the wooden slats were they build their wax.

 

Denise Qualls: If you don't see much, I may have to lift the box a little bit.

 

Carl Van Fleet: Well, a good healthy one on top.

 

Byard Duncan: They're estimating how densely the bees are packed in. The more bees, the more value. Farmers like Carl want to make sure they're getting their money's worth. The price of hives has been rising steadily for years as more and more almond trees get planted in California. The US exports around two billion pounds of almonds a year. Spain, India and China are the top destinations. Every acre of almond trees needs two beehives or bee boxes for pollination. Each hive rents for about $200, so multiply all that by a million acres of trees across the state and the total price tag for growers to rent bees is about $400 million. Inside a client's office, Denise tells me the bees that pollinate California's almond groves come from as far away as Missouri and Florida. When they get here, the hives are brought to remote fields. They're often completely unprotected. And you wouldn't know their value she says.

 

Denise Qualls: Because from an outsider's perspective, it doesn't look like much goes on with the hive. It just looks like this beautiful white box sitting out in the field, but people don't realize what it takes to get it to that level.

 

Byard Duncan: It takes months of work keeping the bees fed and free of parasites, hundreds of dollars per hive. Profits for beekeepers can be razor thin, but, of course, thieves don't have to worry about all that up-front work. With a forklift, they can scoop up pallet after pallet of hives, thousands of dollars' worth of bees, in just a few minutes. Authorities started to understand the extent of California's bee theft problem in 2017. A beekeeper in Missouri named Alexa Pavlov had gotten a tip that thousands of dollars of her stolen bees were sitting in a field near the city of Fresno. She called a detective there named Isaac Torres. He's part of Fresno's Agriculture Crimes Task Force. Yes, there is such a thing in this area, which, after all, is known as the Bread Basket of America. Anyway, the call surprised Torres but only sort of. In more than five years on the job, he's seen a lot of unconventional stuff.

 

Isaac Torres: Anything from commodities, to cargo thefts, to stolen tractors. People going out stealing an actual fruit from fields, bales of hay.

 

Byard Duncan: Torres and Pavlov agreed to meet later that week in a scrubby field outside of Fresno. Sure enough, when they got there, they saw hundreds of bee boxes scattered around, some half assembled, some scratched up or nearly repainted. It was scorching hot, and the bees were zipping through the cloudless sky, which, of course, made it hard to get a close look.

 

Isaac Torres: We drove up to the bees to actually see because, remember, when we're out there, you can't open up the doors because it's like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.

 

Byard Duncan: It's one thing to inspect stolen property. It's another thing to get swarmed by that property and pumped full of venom. This didn't bother Pavlov, though. As Torres watched in horror, she marched into the swarm and started poking around, no bee suit, no gloves. A few minutes later she came back and said, "Yeah, my bees are here." Torres looked out over the field and he began to realize just what he stumbled on.

 

Isaac Torres: This was like a chop shop for auto theft. You got a whole bunch of car parts here, and not solid car parts, but just a whole bunch of car parts. Well, that's basically what we had here was a chop shop, but of beehives. You had some beehives that were alive, and then you had some hives that were dead, and then you had hives that were basically cut up. Tops of boxes were over here on this side of the field, and the other parts of the box were on the other side of the field. You just had to go through there and you had to take a look and see what was out there.

 

Byard Duncan: More cops arrived. They eventually arrested two men. One was wearing a bee suit and tending to the stolen hives right there in the field. As the weeks passed, Torres' phone kept ringing. Beekeepers from across the country wanted to know if their stolen hives had been recovered. He got 10 calls, then 20, then 50.

 

Isaac Torres: Some of them were like, "Well, I had beehives that were stolen three years ago." Some five years ago.

 

Byard Duncan: When all was said and done, authorities located nearly 2,500 stolen hives. All together, they totaled close to a million dollars. To get inside the mind of a bee thief, you've got to talk to Jay Freeman. He's a sheriff's deputy in the small town of Oroville, north of Sacramento. He's been investigating thefts like this for years, and he's helping Fresno authorities with their big case.

 

Jay Freeman: Right now, we're on Richvale Highway in Butte County, driving west to a apiary location where some hives were stolen about six weeks ago.

 

Byard Duncan: Today he's taking me to the site of a recent theft.

 

Jay Freeman: There was approximately eight hives stolen from this location. Then it looked like whoever stole the hives took them off the pallets by hand one at a time.

 

Byard Duncan: In 2016, authorities reported 1,695 hive thefts to Freeman, who keeps the closest thing anyone has to a state-wide tally. After the arrests in the Fresno case, the number went way down, but Freeman says this year thefts are on the rise again.

 

Jay Freeman: I think those numbers are up around five or 600 right now. That is due, in most part, to the increase in pollination prices. I mean, money tends to be the root of all evil, and it drives people to do things that they may not normally do.

 

Byard Duncan: One of the most challenging things about investigating bees thefts is the lack of physical evidence. There are rarely security cameras in the fields or tracking devices in the hives. Most beekeepers, not just thieves, move their bees at night. So it's hard to tell who's legit and who's not if you're just passing by on the freeway. You end up with your nose in the dirt looking for tire tracks, shoe prints, the same stuff Kamron Koehnen was left deciphering when his bees went missing in 2016. Part of that big Fresno heist. But Kamron got lucky. A year later, shortly after the alleged thieves were arrested, he got some good news. Another beekeeper had recognized some of his boxes, which he brands in several places with the number 4214. It's unique to his bees. In his warehouse, he showed me one these boxes.

 

Kamron Koehnen: So here's 4214 on this piece. Sometimes we get sneaky and we put one underneath there. So if they grind that off, you pop it off, hey, surprise. Then every single frame, 4214.

 

Byard Duncan: After getting the call, he drove down to Fresno, about five hours away, and retrieved 80 of his 240 stolen hives.

 

Kamron Koehnen: So we ran down there, and we picked all that stuff up. Hey, we threw a net over it and came back. Yeah, a lot of it had bees on it but, hey, we just brought it back and gassed the whole pile because it had been a year or two. God knows what those guys had done with it or what they put in there.

 

Byard Duncan: He figured the two suspects cared more about making money than keeping his bees healthy or free of parasites. He didn't want to take any chances. This past November, Kamron says an investigator in Fresno told him they had found more of his hives about 1600 miles away in North Dakota. They wanted him to come out immediately, but he was too busy trying to prepare for this year's almond harvest. He says his hives are sitting in a heap with other busted-up bee boxes.

 

Kamron Koehnen: Now I get to go to North Dakota, and go to the big junk pile, and sort out through that all my stuff, and try to figure out how to bring that back. I'm sure a lot of it is going to be rotten and, hey there'd be no wax. The wax moth, and rats, and mice will have eaten all that. Best-case scenario, we just get our wood and our brand back and maybe be able to salvage some of that stuff.

 

Byard Duncan: Kamron estimates that his total losses were $100,000 if you count the lost rental money for the hives, the value of the bees themselves, and all the work he had to put into them. All was not lost though. Fellow beekeepers helped him fulfill his contracts with almond farmers so he didn't come up short. Still, the idea that his hives were just there for the taking, that someone with a forklift and some bad intentions could seriously cripple his business overnight, that it could all happen again to him or another beekeeper he knows, that stings.

 

Kamron Koehnen: You're not happy at all. I mean, hey, bees are livestock. Back in the day, what did you do with a horse thief or a cattle thief, cattle rustler? Hey, those guys were strung up, and justice was served.

 

Byard Duncan: In modern times, justice moves a little slower. The Fresno suspects are out on bail. A hearing is set for October, but bee thefts are here to stay. That's because almonds have dramatically shaped the very identity of California. Driving around the state, you see names like, Nut Tree Parkway and Almond Blossom Estates manufactured home park. The fields feel crammed into the landscape. There are more almond trees planted every year, tens of thousands more. That means more demand for bees, which pushes the value of hives higher. For farmers and for thieves.

 

Al Letson: Reveal's Byard Duncan brought us that story. Next, from almond groves near Fresno, California, we head west to a strawberry field in the Salinas Valley where sulfur helps control powdery mildew. Because it's a natural element, organic farmers can use it. But natural doesn't mean it can't cause harm.

 

Lisbeth: I do not like seeing my kids in the hospital with all these wires on them, having to have oxygen because they can't breathe.

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We've been hearing dispatches from farm country that we originally brought you earlier this year. Next, we're traveling west from Fresno to California's Salinas Valley, called America's Salad Bowl. John Steinbeck set his novel East of Eden here. The Mariscal family lives in a one story, ranch-style house in a quiet neighborhood in the town of Salinas. It's early March, windy and cold. 12-year-old Daisy is having an asthma attack.

 

Daisy: My chest just makes this weird noise and my throat sometimes doesn't... It's kind of weird.

 

Al Letson: When she tries to breathe, you can hear a whistle. She has to pause every couple words to catch her breath.

 

Daisy: It feels like you can't breathe very well, you have to breathe faster.

 

Al Letson: Daisy has had asthma since she was three years old, and it affects a lot of things in her life.

 

Daisy: It's kind of difficult to do most stuff that regular kids can do. We had this running class, and I was one of the last people because I couldn't run well because I got an asthma attack.

 

Al Letson: For years, asthma was thought of as a city problem, where there's heavy industry and lots of traffic. But it turns out asthma's just as common in rural communities. Researchers are trying to figure out why. Reporter, Eilís O'Neill went to find out what they've learned.

 

Eilís O'Neill: I'm with Chris Tuohig at one of his strawberry fields. Rows of raised beds covered with tarps with little strawberry plants poking through. They stretch all the way down the valley, not just on his land but on all his neighbor's land as well.

 

Chris Tuohig: We're in the middle of strawberry country. We're in the middle of Watsonville in southern Santa Cruz county, right on the coast. We're approximately half a mile from the beach.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Chris farms about a hundred acres, a lot of strawberries and also some kale, tomatoes and other vegetables. He's an organic farmer who's been in the business about 12 years. The day I meet him the sky is blue for the first time in days.

 

Chris Tuohig: There is some ripe strawberries over there, but they're all damaged from the rain.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Oh no.

 

Chris Tuohig: Yeah, that happens.

 

Eilís O'Neill: In what way are they damaged?

 

Chris Tuohig: Let's walk up here, I'll show you. See the mold and the mildew and...

 

Eilís O'Neill: It would have been a beautiful strawberry.

 

Chris Tuohig: It would have. Some of these still taste good but nothing that you want to put in a basket.

 

Eilís O'Neill: California grows roughly 90% of US strawberries and over 99% of the country's grapes. Growing all of that requires warding off pests, mold, and mildew. One of the biggest problems for strawberry and grape farmers is a fungus called powdery mildew. Strawberries that have it look like someone's dipped them in white powder.

 

Chris Tuohig: It does not look appealing, yeah.

 

Eilís O'Neill: When it comes to preventing powdery mildew, farmers have a lot of tools in their toolbox.

 

Chris Tuohig: The fact that these are on raised beds creates a lot more airflow, and the spacing. I don't know if you noticed, but these plants are spaced about 16 inches apart. A lot of guys will plant them really close together, trying to get higher yields but you end up with more problems.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Chris says these preventative measures work for the most part. But sometimes, when it's rainy and cold, he has to use a pesticide: sulfur.

 

Chris Tuohig: As far as the organic guys, sulfur's probably one of the only things that they have to really knock stuff down.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Sulfur's approved for use in organic agriculture because, after all, it's natural, just one of the elements like iron or magnesium. Both organic and non-organic farmers use it. It's really cheap, just 50 cents a pound, and farmers use tons of it. In fact, it's the most-used pesticide in California. It's widely used in the rest of the country as well. You're supposed to wear a respirator and keep a close eye on wind speed when you're spraying sulfur, but that doesn't always happen. People who accidentally breathe it in can have irritated eyes, sore throats, or difficulty breathing. Lisa Blecker's a pesticide safety expert at the University of California in Davis.

 

Lisa Blecker: There's something about sulfur that makes people are... Every time that they're exposed to sulfur, the reaction can get worse, kind of like if you are allergic to a bee sting. So every subsequent time that you are stung, your body responds in a more severe way.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Over the past 10 years, California's Department of Pesticide Regulation has received 400 reports of people getting sick after having contact with sulfur. They were mostly farm workers and growers. No one knew if sulfur was affecting children who lived near the fields where sulfur was sprayed. That's what Brenda Eskenazi set out to study. She's a public health researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

 

Brenda Eskenazi: We had seen these case reports, but there had been no large-scale study of children who are living in agricultural communities but aren't actually involved in farm work themselves.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Brenda and her colleagues have been following a group of more than 500 children in the Salinas Valley from before they were even born. First, the researchers looked at where farmers had sprayed or dusted sulfur.

 

Brenda Eskenazi: We can link it to where the kids lived. We took into account the direction of wind. It wasn't just looking where the children lived but where they lived in terms of where the wind was blowing.

 

Eilís O'Neill: What the researchers found was that at seven years old...

 

Brenda Eskenazi: Kids that lived closer to where sulfur was applied had more asthma problems and also poorer lung function.

 

Eilís O'Neill: The town of Greenfield is in the Salinas Valley where Brenda did her study. It's surrounded on all sides by fields, mostly vineyards. In fact, nowhere in this tiny place is more than about three quarters of a mile from the nearest field. The elementary schools form a ring around the outside of the town, their playgrounds abutting fields.

 

Andrea Sanchez: The seals come to the beach to have...

 

Eilís O'Neill: Andrea Sanchez is eight. She lives here with her sister, her mom, her aunt and uncle, and her grandparents in a one story house.

 

Andrea Sanchez: [inaudible 00:43:36].

 

Eilís O'Neill: When I visited, Andrea's mom Lisbeth was helping her with her homework.

 

Lisbeth: She's in second grade but before she couldn't read. She would have a hard time with spelling.

 

Eilís O'Neill: She must be missing a lot of school.

 

Lisbeth: Yeah, she was missing a lot. In a month, sometimes she missed a whole week. Then she'd go, and then she missed almost a week again. It was because she was sick.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Andrea started getting sick when she was just a baby, about a year old.

 

Lisbeth: The first thing that I would notice is that she was breathing really fast, but at the same time, it's like her stomach was going in. Right here by her collarbone, her skin was going in too.

 

Eilís O'Neill: The first time Andrea had trouble breathing, Lisbeth and Andrea's father rushed her to the hospital. The doctor stabilized her and sent her home, but over the next two years, she went to the emergency room five more times when she stopped being able to breathe.

 

Lisbeth: She had to be connected to those things, I guess, for the oxygen right here on her nose. She looked desperate. She was small. She wanted to get up, but she couldn't get up.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Lisbeth says that at just eight years old, her daughter has been hospitalized 14 times. Even though she's on medication, she still gets asthma attacks, sometimes severe ones when she has a cold or when she plays outside in the winter. Andrea's older sister, [Alessandra] has also been diagnosed with asthma.

 

Lisbeth: I do not like seeing my kids being sick, and having seen my kids in the hospital with all these wires on them, having to have oxygen because they can't breathe. It's just really hard because of this that I have to be going to therapy and have to be taking anxiety medication.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Lisbeth grew up in the Salinas Valley. Her father was a farm worker, and she's known a lot of people with asthma. Do you have any theories as to the root causes of all this asthma?

 

Lisbeth: I just feel that has to do a lot with the fields, like the air. We're getting exposed to, and especially because my sister has it too. My sister was older when she was diagnosed with asthma. I think she was 11. She went to the middle school, this is the same middle school that I would go to. When we would go on the grass, all around there, it's fields. Sometimes I remember when I was in school, they would have these signs posted on the side that said, "Danger," because pesticides.

 

Eilís O'Neill: One reason growers still used pesticides, despite their health effects, is obvious, cost. Remember, sulfur is cheap, 50 cents per pound. Alternatives can cost up to 200 times more. Lisa Blecker, the pesticide safety expert at UC Davis, says if not for sulfur, some growers would have to up their prices, and others would stop growing grapes all together.

 

Lisa Blecker: Given that sulfur is the number one product used to control powdery mildew, if that went away, wine and table grapes and raisins would be really expensive.

 

Eilís O'Neill: She says, "There's no need to ban sulfur, it just needs to be closely regulated."

 

Lisa Blecker: Anything that we do to reduce the offsite movement of pesticides is good, Monitoring wind speed and direction. A lot of grape growers do night applications because they are trying to just minimize the exposure to people, because there's more people out during the day. If you're spraying in a situation where grapes are only on one side of you, it's best to be spraying into the vineyard.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Lisa says that there could be even more stringent regulations near homes, schools, and roads, but that is not likely to happen. Karen Morrison is with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. She says her department is aware of the UC Berkeley study on children and their proximity to sulfur spraying, but they won't change any regulations in response to it. She says that's because it's an epidemiological study.

 

Karen Morrison: Epidemiology studies are really challenging for us to use, in that they show correlation between events but they don't show causation. We tend to rely on toxicological studies that more directly show that the use of a pesticide causes some sort of long-term effect.

 

Eilís O'Neill: A toxicological study would expose, say, a mouse or other animal to a certain amount of sulfur and measure the effect. Karen says sulfur is one of the safest pesticides around.

 

Karen Morrison: We do think that what's in place currently is protective for the people of California when applications are made correctly.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Chris Tuohig is the organic farmer I met earlier. The field where we talked is about three quarters of a mile from a school in a small town. I asked Chris what he thought about the research into sulfur and asthma. Am I telling you for the first time or had you heard about this before?

 

Chris Tuohig: About the correlation with asthma?

 

Eilís O'Neill: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Chris Tuohig: That's the first time I've heard of it, but it's definitely an irritant.

 

Eilís O'Neill: But he said, sulfur's his best option.

 

Chris Tuohig: All the conventional guys, they have all these other tools in their tool chest that they can spray, so they're not spraying sulfur. They're spraying stuff that's way worse than sulfur.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Back at UC Berkeley, Brenda Eskenazi says that, based on her study, California should change its sulfur regulations.

 

Brenda Eskenazi: We have to feed the public, and at the same time, we have to be certain that we're not polluting the public. We have to find the balance that allows us to do both.

 

Eilís O'Neill: But there's little sign that California will move anytime soon to tighten regulations on sulfur.

 

Al Letson: That story by reporter Eilís O'Neill. Our reporting on the herbicide dicamba was in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an independent nonprofit news organization. Our lead producer for this week's show is Fernanda Camarena. The editor is Deborah George. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Kaitlin Benz and Catherine Raymondo. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 31: From PRX.