The War on Mesquite: Collateral Damage in Howard Buffett's Border Crusade

The War on Mesquite: Collateral Damage in Howard Buffett's Border Crusade
Lindsey Kelly

click to enlarge LINDSEY KELLY
Lindsey Kelly
Along the border with Mexico in Cochise County, a war is being waged against mesquite, a leguminous desert native once referred to by the area’s indigenous people as the “tree of life.”

One of the toughest plants in the desert, mesquite long has provided food, medicine, building materials, and many other resources to humans and animals in the region.

But in recent years, cattle ranchers armed with fistfuls of federal and private donor dollars have rained down herbicides over many thousands of acres of high desert near the international border — all in an effort to kill off the once-revered tree.

County residents and landowners have alleged that these sprayings resulted in damage to health, homes, and commerce through drifts of the herbicidal poisons. A suit seeking at least $1 million in damages has been filed.

Some also warn of potential threats to groundwater and delicate ecosystems.

But for all the lives affected and land defoliated, this strange war finds its roots in the unlikely but true story of the desire of one extremely wealthy man, Howard Buffett, to seal the county’s border with Mexico.

click to enlarge The highways in Cochise County are lined with dead mesquite trees. - BEAU  HODAI
The highways in Cochise County are lined with dead mesquite trees.
Beau Hodai

‘What the Hell Are You Guys Doing?’

One morning in June 2017, Randall Pipkorn watched as a yellow plane flew back and forth near his property, maybe 50 yards from where his wife, Nancy, was riding her bicycle.

With each pass, the plane let loose a streaming cloud of something. He recalls thinking his rancher neighbor must’ve been seeding pasture.

Pipkorn, now 73, has lived on this 55-acre spread, situated just over four miles from the international border between Sonora, Mexico, and Cochise County at Naco, about 35 years. He and Nancy have been married for 15 years.

It was nothing but a cheap piece of bare land with a well and an electrical hookup when he bought it. Randall built a house out of adobe he mixed from the clay- and sand-rich ground.

Over time, the Pipkorns transformed the house into a home, planting fruit and shade trees, as well as a large vegetable garden.

They never suspected that the yellow plane was a threat to any of that as they watched it fly off that morning.

However, within a few weeks, Randall Pipkorn said, all the plants on their property started to shrivel and turn yellow. Soon, much of what had taken the better part of four decades to grow had died.

The Pipkorn residence wasn’t the only place affected. Mesquite trees lining area roads were dying as well.

At first, Randall thought the trees were suffering from drought. Then, as Nancy drove home one evening, she pieced together what had happened: Areas of dead and dying trees followed the path of the yellow plane and the clouds it had shed over the rangelands of their rancher neighbor, John Ladd.

Randall Pipkorn said he then contacted both Ladd and the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

He learned that Ladd had been spraying portions of his rangeland with chemicals produced by Dow AgroSciences (now Corteva Agriscience, following a merger between chemical giants Dow and DuPont).

Arizona Department of Agriculture investigators visited the Pipkorns’ property and took soil samples. But, early monsoon rains had fallen in the intervening weeks, and the samples returned negative results.

Nevertheless, according to a letter to Pipkorn from the agriculture department, investigators observed what they believed to have been clear signs of damage due to herbicide “drift” on the Pipkorn property.

The primary herbicide deployed was a relatively new cocktail named Sendero — a broadleaf herbicide designed by Dow to attack and kill mesquite while leaving grasses useful as cattle forage. The chemical also kills acacia and other trees, shrubs, cactuses, and a host of the high desert’s native flora. According to Randall Pipkorn’s research, another Dow herbicide, Remedy, which targets a similar list of pants, was mixed with Sendero in the spraying.

The Pipkorns were alarmed to learn that Sendero’s active ingredients, clopyralid and aminopyralid, can have substantial periods of persistence in soil and had been banned or restricted for use in some states due to active ingredient persistence in feed and compost derived from spray sites.

Randall Pipkorn said Ladd gave him some phone numbers to call. The next morning, he said, a representative of Dow, a Crop Production Services (a contractor involved in the spraying) representative named Barry Wallace, a man named Gerry Gonzalez, and Ladd arrived at the Pipkorns’ home.

Not too long afterward, Randall Pipkorn said, the Dow representative offered the couple $2,500 to “put this behind you.”

Pipkorn said that rather than taking such a small settlement, they decided to wait to see whether the vegetation around their home bounced back, and to “see how we were doing, physically.”

Close to two years later, following consultation with an attorney and the realization that they “didn’t have the time, strength, patience, or cash to take these people on,” the Pipkorns approached Dow to accept the initial offer of $2,500.

They were informed that the representative who had made the offer had since retired. They were told to have their attorney contact a Dow attorney, Randall Pipkorn said. The Pipkorns didn’t have the money to spend on counsel, so they wrote the Dow attorney themselves. They said they have received no response.

Dow did not respond to requests for comment on this or any allegations made against the company in this story.

The Pipkorns said they both have had health problems since the June 2017 spraying. Both have suffered “watery, runny eyes,” and Randall began to have respiratory troubles. Then, his heart began to fail and he had to undergo triple-bypass surgery, he said.

He doesn’t know whether the incident influenced his respiratory and heart problems toxicologically, but he believes this health trouble was largely the result of stress caused by the poisoning of his home.

“I’ve got a lot of blood, sweat, and tears invested in this property,” he said. “To see somebody come along and kill everything that I planted ... that was devastating.”

Today, Randall Pipkorn said he and Nancy have pretty much given up hope of restitution or restoration. Their pomegranate tree produces no fruit, and the garden is decimated — but the mesquites have recovered.

He gets tense when he talks about the herbicide spraying program that led to the destruction of so much he and his wife had worked for. And, looking back on it, he said the incident “totally disrupted” their lives over the past few years.

“A lot of it was just anger — you know, ‘What the hell are you guys doing?’ — and then the powerless feeling about, you know, ‘There’s no way we’re going to recover this,’” Randall Pipkorn said. “So that takes a couple years. In the meantime, you’re hauling in soil and realizing that, you know, stuff’s not growing.”

click to enlarge Some ranchers believed killing mesquite trees would help restore grasslands. - BEAU HODAI
Some ranchers believed killing mesquite trees would help restore grasslands.
Beau Hodai

Killing the Tree of Life for Profit

On the morning of December 14, 2016, board members of the Hereford Natural Resource Conservation District, along with advisers and contractors, held a meeting in Sierra Vista.

The Hereford Natural Resource Conservation District (southwestern Cochise County) and Whitewater Draw Natural Resource Conservation District (the southeastern portion of the county) operate under the auspices of the Arizona State Land Department and work to develop and conserve natural resources beneficial to ranchers in the county.

Both districts were, at the time of the meeting, deeply involved in a “border rangeland restoration project,” consisting of the development of a new method of aerial herbicide spraying specifically targeting mesquite.

During the meeting, Hereford board member John Ladd briefed the group on the status of the project. According to minutes of the meeting, Ladd said that, while herbicide spraying in 2014 had yielded results that “were not very good,” the “kill rate” had improved to about 50 percent in 2015, and was expected to reach 80 percent for 2016’s spraying.

Ladd also said Dow Chemical had been submitting spraying results to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service’s in-state leadership to gain “possible cost-share (EQIP funds) in the future,” according to the minutes.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides U.S. Department of Agriculture “cost-sharing” funding to eligible agricultural producers in each state, with the intent to “address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits such as improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, reduced soil erosion and sedimentations, and improved wildlife habitat.”

NRCS, an agency of USDA, distributes these EQIP funds.

Records indicate that NRCS Douglas Field Office District Conservationist Don Decker was present at the December 14, 2016, meeting. Decker’s office covers southern Cochise County.

When asked whether he had any knowledge of Dow’s work to gain federal subsidization for ranchers’ purchase of these Dow chemicals, Decker laughed nervously as he told Phoenix New Times: “I have no idea ... about that.”

Decker said he did engage in the monitoring of “test plots” with Dow representatives during the trial phase of the border herbicide spraying program. Dow’s interest, he said, was in developing a “useful chemical that could be used on rangeland, you know, to achieve goals in brush management” so that they could “sell product.”

According to Arizona Department of Environmental Quality records, Sendero wasn’t approved for registration with the Arizona Department of Agriculture for use in the state until September 2, 2016.

That approval came with a caveat: The active ingredient clopyralid would be placed on the state’s Groundwater Protection List — a registry mandated by law that contains the names of agricultural-use pesticides and their active ingredients that have potential to pollute groundwater.

Sendero was eventually registered with Arizona Department of Agriculture on November 23, 2016, according to the department.

Use of the herbicide in aerial spraying for mesquite control was added to USDA’s EQIP cost-sharing list not long after, sometime around 2017, Decker said.

But there was more than Dow’s apparent profit motive behind the herbicide spraying project.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Ladd said that the program was “an ongoing endeavor for the Iroquois Foundation for the one-mile strip along the international border.”

Iroquois Foundation is an apparent reference to Iroquois LLC, a private company controlled by Howard Graham Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, the third-wealthiest person on the planet, according to Forbes.

Killing the Tree of Life for Ideology

click to enlarge Howard Buffett was the sheriff of Macon County, Illinois, until the November election. - MACON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE FACEBOOK PAGE PHOTO
Howard Buffett was the sheriff of Macon County, Illinois, until the November election.
Macon County Sheriff's Office Facebook page photo
Howard Buffett is known for his philanthropic foundations, which have received somewhere around $150 million annually from his father. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Sequoia Farm Foundation say they are dedicated to combating food insecurity and supporting “conflict resolution.”

But Iroquois is a different animal, holding land and engaging personnel dedicated to Howard Buffett’s personal border enforcement/law enforcement efforts.

As previously reported by New Times, Buffett, friends, and Iroquois personnel have conducted private border enforcement efforts in Cochise County, including armed patrols and surveillance, which fit in with the area’s long history of border vigilantism.

Further, as previously reported by New Times, Buffett has given tens of millions of dollars to the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office to enhance its border enforcement capabilities.

Howard Buffett did not respond to written questions regarding Iroquois’ funding sources or purpose.

Written questions also were submitted to Warren Buffett, through his assistant, Debbie Bosanek, regarding Howard Buffett’s activities on the border, the Iroquois border herbicide project, and Howard Buffett’s border enforcement-related uses of his father’s money. Neither Warren Buffett nor Bosanek responded.

New Mexico State University Professor Emeritus Kirk McDaniel said he worked as a Dow consultant during the Iroquois border herbicide program. He said “test plots” monitored by Dow in the border project included areas of an Iroquois-owned border property, Christiansen Ranch, and John Ladd’s nearby San Jose Ranch.

Ladd’s ranch spans much of the private and state land from the border town of Naco to the San Pedro River. Ladd long has been a vocal critic of American border policy, claiming alarmingly high incidences of illicit border traffic on his property.

Indeed, several of the border ranchers/landowners who took part in the Iroquois border project, and subsequent Cochise County mesquite-targeted herbicide sprayings, are regular and loud voices in the worlds of anti-immigrant and border security advocacy. Most notably among these are Ladd, Fred and Peggy Davis, and the Cowan family.

In late 2016, Ladd and the Davises (as representatives of Hereford and Whitewater Draw conservation districts), and Caren Cowan joined a federal suit that seeks to end programs of legal immigration administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The case is ongoing.

For his part, Howard Buffett has made his motives in the mesquite eradication effort fairly clear.

He decried the state of border security and detailed the plight of his “fellow rancher John Ladd,” in written testimony submitted to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on March 17, 2015. Buffett said Ladd suffered routine incursions and loss of property value because of his ranch’s “proximity to the Mexico border and illegal immigration and drug smuggling problems.”

In this testimony, Buffett went on to describe “new approaches” to securing the border. These included his efforts to enhance the capabilities of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office as well as a partnership between his foundation and “area ranchers and federal and state agencies to restore healthy grasslands one mile deep and 38 miles along the border.”

“We expect to put more than $6 million into this effort in the coming years with a goal to demonstrate not only the environmental benefits to removing invasive species of plants like mesquite but to also enhance enforcement visibility along the border, making it more difficult to cross, he said.”

As previously reported by New Times, Buffett, facilitated by members of the Senate Homeland Security committee, gained support of the USDA leadership for the border defoliation effort.

Buffett did not directly respond to written questions submitted by New Times pertaining to a wide array of his border activities and the “border grasslands restoration” project. Rather, in response to these questions, an unnamed representative of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation issued a statement that downplayed any border enforcement aspect of the project, stating that “[experts] were consulted to help ranchers determine the most effective way to eliminate invasive plant species and to preserve water resources.”

The statement acknowledged that the effort intended to “increase safety for recreation, livestock permittees, landowners, law enforcement, and ranchers.”

The statement concluded: “To our knowledge, implementation of the project was done in consultation and with the approval of local, state, and federal authorities.”

Gonzalez: ‘I Think They Were Xenophobic’

click to enlarge Howard Buffett advertised his efforts to kill mesquite trees as restoring local grasslands. - COCHISE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Howard Buffett advertised his efforts to kill mesquite trees as restoring local grasslands.
Cochise County Sheriff's Office
Former NRCS Douglas District Conservationist Gerry Gonzalez described his former role in the Buffett “border grassland restoration” project as “coordinator.”

In an interview in spring 2016, Gonzalez said he had spoken with Buffett around 2014 in regard to the “problem with mesquite.” After this conversation, Buffett agreed to finance Gonzalez’s research into mesquite control.

Gonzalez became the project’s chief evangelist — both during the years of the initial Buffett-funded project, and following the initial project’s success in gaining USDA subsidization for continuation of this mesquite elimination practice.

The “problem with mesquite,” as he saw it back then, was that it is not native to Cochise County. According to Gonzalez, the area was once pristine grassland, with no native mesquite. All mesquite in the area had been imported over the last century or so — a stowaway in the guts and dung of cattle that had browsed the leguminous trees in Texas. As a result, the mesquite, with its immense taproots, capable of reaching down well over 100 feet into the earth, has taken over and is robbing the county’s grasslands (and ranchers) of their water, he said.

Interviewed in spring 2016, Gonzalez denied any border-enforcement motive behind the Iroquois border defoliation project.

But as he looked back on it during a recent interview with New Times, Gonzalez’s views appeared to have changed.

He acknowledged that mesquite may be native to the area, but only “in limited quantities.”

Speaking of the Buffett operation at Christiansen and the Ladd ranch, Gonzalez said, “I think they were xenophobic.”

And he acknowledged the border enforcement motives of some of the other ranchers involved, and said he’s frustrated by the level of fear of the border and of Mexicans exhibited by some involved in the grasslands project.

Gonzalez said that around 20 years ago, he had an idea to secure the border by clearing all brush for three miles on either side of the international line. This way, grasslands would be encouraged for cattle-grazing, illicit drug traffic would be reduced, and the close-knit community that existed between people on both sides of the border would not be severed by the construction of a border wall.

But then, he said, the attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred and talk of terrorist invasions and walls drowned out his idea.

Gonzalez said Buffett was just another outsider with a plan to secure the border from what Gonzalez laughs off as a largely nonexistent threat.

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In the years that followed, a massive steel wall was erected, separating friends and families on either side of the international line. And Cochise County, Gonzalez said, played host to a seemingly unending procession of border activists and vigilantes.

Today, Gonzalez said Buffett was just another outsider with a plan to secure the border from what Gonzalez laughs off as a largely nonexistent threat.

“The only difference was that he had money,” Gonzalez said. “But, the money’s come and gone — and that’s it, you know?”

Gonzalez denies that the Iroquois border defoliation project was his idea. When asked how the project originated, he said he believes it came from “a conversation one of the ranchers had with the sheriff. And the sheriff knew Buffett, and the next thing I know, we’re at a meeting at the sheriff’s office, talking about doing some of this.”

Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels declined a request for an interview. His office did not respond to further written questions relating to Buffett’s relationship with the agency or the sheriff’s involvement in the border defoliation program.

After these early conversations with Buffett and Dannels, Gonzalez said, Dow became involved.

New Mexico State University Professor Emeritus Kirk McDaniel recalled that Gonzalez was the representative of the border herbicide project who first contacted Sendero inventor Charles Hart (formerly of Texas A&M University, then employed by Dow), who in turn brought McDaniel into the project as a Dow “consultant.”

Hart could not be reached for comment.

Though Sendero, the primary herbicide deployed to kill mesquite, would not be approved for use in Arizona until late November 2016, McDaniel said Dow had obtained “experimental use permits” for application of the chemical on test plots along the border.

McDaniel also said he was aware of border enforcement motives behind the selection of some of those sites.

And, according to McDaniel, when the border herbicide spraying program spread beyond the confines of “test plots” around 2015, he and Hart likely pieced together alternative spray mixes using Dow products already permitted for sale in Arizona containing Sendero’s active ingredients clopyralid and aminopyralid.

In spring 2016, Gonzalez said that the Iroquois border-defoliation program (then underway for two years) consisted of at least nine participating ranches, along with properties owned by Phoenix-based mining giant Freeport McMoran and the city of Douglas.

Today, Gonzalez estimates that about 30 percent of that land was sprayed with Sendero or its analogs intended to target mesquite. The remainder of the property was hit with another Dow chemical, Spike, intended to kill creosote, he said.

Gonzalez said he “coordinated” the Iroquois program under contract with the project’s “applicator,” Crop Production Services, reporting to the company’s regional manager Barry Wallace.

All of the money for the project, Gonzalez said, came from Buffett through Iroquois.

Wallace could not be reached for comment, and according to Gonzalez, has since retired. Nevertheless, a January 20, 2017, email between Wallace, Gonzalez, and a Buffett employee shows Wallace setting prices for the aerial application of Sendero and Remedy in Cochise County.

Gonzalez said his only interest was to help the ranching community, though he does now acknowledge that there was a darker side of the project that made him uncomfortable.

He remembers a barbecue held by Buffett at his Christensen ranch in honor of the “grasslands restoration” project. There were ranchers present but the place was packed with law enforcement: CCSO, Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and others, Gonzalez recalled. Buffett presented maps of the herbicide spraying areas and a slideshow.

“It was mainly grass stuff, you know — which is kind of technical, which was cool — ah, but, I think it was kind of overshadowed by everybody’s uniforms and guns, standing around,” Gonzalez said.

click to enlarge Healthy mesquite trees supply forage for cattle and other animals. - REBEKAH WILCE
Healthy mesquite trees supply forage for cattle and other animals.
Rebekah Wilce

The Truth About Mesquite

For all the talk of border insecurity and grasslands restoration, the truth about mesquite’s role in this desert ecosystem is obscured.

Gary Paul Nabhan, Ph.D, is an agricultural ecologist, conservation biologist, and ethnobotanist. He is a co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Southwestern agricultural plants. He is also a former director of the Desert Botanical Garden, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. Nabhan is currently the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Southwest Borderlands Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center.

And he is the author of the book Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair, published in 2018.

Far from being “invasive,” mesquite is native to every county where it is currently found in Arizona, Nabhan said. The plant has played an integral role to human inhabitants of the region for thousands of years.

Further, the plant is a “keystone species” in the ecosystem — providing food, forage, and shelter for a vast array of plants and animals.

Nabhan also points out that as many as 70 species of native bee can be found in a single stand of mesquite. The bees, and other birds and insects supported by mesquite, pollinate other plants throughout the ecosystem — allowing them to reproduce.

But, Nabhan said, perhaps mesquite’s most important role in this ecosystem is that of fertilizer engine.

Mesquite’s deep roots — the deepest known of which run 167 feet into the earth — pump nitrogen up from far deeper than the shallow roots of desert grasses and forbs can reach. This essential nutrient is rained down on the ground surface in the form of mesquite leaf litter, which is then distributed over the land through monsoon rain and flooding.

The trees’ secondary root system, closer to the surface, hosts mycorrhizal fungus and attendant bacteria. These symbiotic organisms “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere to soil wherever mesquite is present.

Nabhan said that ranchers who believe that killing off mesquite will result in increased grass productivity follow a “false logic.” Some amount of water may be freed up through the eradication of mesquite, he noted, but the soil and other plants living in it would become starved of nitrogen. The limiting factor in grass growth would shift from a scarcity of water to a scarcity of nutrients.

Where the notion of mesquite as invasive species is concerned, Nabhan and Cochise County rancher Dennis Moroney said that mesquite, rather than “invading,” is growing in density. This is primarily the result of two factors: poor range management and climate change.

Moroney, an Arizona native, has decades of ranching experience. He’s served in leadership roles in the Cochise Graham Cattlegrowers Association and the Arizona Section of the Society for Range Management. He also has taught agricultural studies in Washington state, Prescott College, Yavapai College, and Cochise College for more than 30 years.

He said that the early European and American settlers passing through what is now Cochise County may not have realized that the swaying seas of grass they encountered were not entirely natural. The Apache were big on grassland promotion through controlled burns — some of which could cover as much as 500 acres and span miles.

The regular burns, Moroney said, were conducted by these pre-European inhabitants to encourage grass growth through the thinning of cover plants, such as mesquite, which, if not controlled, would cut off sunlight and suppress grass growth.

With the arrival of the Spanish in Apacheria came suppression of controlled burns. And, later, through the American Indian Wars, the eventual banishment of the Apache, and the incursion of the railroad, came a flood of cattle.

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Enhanced grasslands meant enhanced feeding opportunities for the once-abundant herds of game in the area, Moroney said. Enhanced feed for deer also translated to more meat for the Apache.

But, with the arrival of the Spanish in Apacheria came suppression of controlled burns. And, later, through the American Indian Wars, the eventual banishment of the Apache, and the incursion of the railroad, came a flood of cattle. Cochise County’s once lush grasslands were chewed to stubble.

This stark reduction in grass, Moroney said, translated to a scarcity of fuel to carry lightning-induced burns — a severe disruption of the high desert’s own natural wildfire cycle.

Absent the manmade and natural fires, mesquite found itself growing in the region unchecked.
Further, according to both Moroney and Nabhan, native mesquite broadened its claim to the desert in the dung of horses, not cattle.

Following roughly a century of overgrazing, horse poop, and global human carbon emissions, came climate change.

Nabhan and Moroney both said that areas in the region that once were grasslands are shifting to “mesquite savannah” ecosystems, largely the result of decreased rainfall, and the increasingly erratic and unreliable patterns of rain events.

Mesquite and other desert trees/shrubs such acacia, with their deep root systems, often thrive in conditions of water scarcity; grasses, with shallow root systems, do not fare so well.

Another major factor in this conversion, Moroney said, is the heightened (and climbing) level of carbon in the atmosphere. Grasses react adversely to increased atmospheric carbon levels; mesquite prospers on heightened carbon levels and does a better job at removing and sequestering atmospheric carbon than grasses.

So, as climate change intensifies, mesquite is this ecosystem’s natural, and most logical, response.

At 47 Ranch, Moroney raises Criollo cattle, which are similar to the breed first imported to the Americas by the Spanish. These cattle, he said, are better suited to the arid environment of the Southwest than many of the other breeds being raised in Cochise County today.

Working with University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment Graduate Research Assistant Flavie Audoin, Moroney has closely tracked the seasonal feeding habits of Criollo cattle on 47 Ranch.
He said that they found that 90 percent of the diet of mature cattle on the ranch, during May and June, 2018, consisted of mesquite.

Mesquite forage, as it turns out, is vital in carrying the cattle through the brutal sun-scorched months between the area’s fairly temperate spring and the onset of monsoon.

This, as climate change wears on, has given Moroney and some other ranchers reason to embrace mesquite — despite all the money waved in their faces by the government and Buffett.

click to enlarge The Hofmanns say their vineyards in Cochise County were damaged by spraying. - BEAU HODAI
The Hofmanns say their vineyards in Cochise County were damaged by spraying.
Beau Hodai

More Collateral Damage in Cochise County

Randall and Nancy Pipkorn are not the only Cochise County residents to claim health and property damage from drifts of aerial herbicides intended for mesquite on rangeland.

Charles and Karen Hofmann own 36 acres a few miles north of the Moroney Ranch, where they grow grapes as part of their business, Hofmann Vineyards.

On June 2, 2017, the Hofmanns said they noticed a yellow plane spraying something on the Cowan family’s NI ranch, situated roughly 20 miles from the border, which is run by Caren Cowan’s cousin Ruth Evelyn Cowan.

According to Cochise County Geographic Information System data, the nearest boundary of property owned by the Cowan ranch lies approximately 1,800 feet from the Hofmann vineyard.

The plane came so close in its passes of the Cowan rangeland that it buzzed the vineyard’s guest house, they said. The following day, they saw the same plane spraying Cowan rangeland approximately two miles to the north of the vineyard.

On the morning of June 4, the Hofmanns said, spraying resumed, with the yellow plane drawing closer and closer to their vineyard, even as the winds picked up.

They said they tried to wave the plane off, attempting to make it clear to the pilot that their property was a vineyard. Still, the plane and the spraying drew closer.

click to enlarge Charles Hofmann is suing over damage he says spraying caused to his vineyards. - BEAU HODAI
Charles Hofmann is suing over damage he says spraying caused to his vineyards.
Beau Hodai
Charles Hofmann was working that morning without a shirt, wearing shorts. He said he felt a “mist” rain down on him, covering his exposed skin. The mist covered much of their property, they said, with droplets visible on their well’s water tank and some of the windows of their buildings.

On the morning of June 7, Karen Hofmann noticed that most of the grape plants on the property were turning yellow and dying. According to the Hofmanns, fruit trees on the property were affected as well, and foliage on mesquite as far as a quarter-mile south of their property turned yellow.

They said they began to suffer inflammation of their eyes and throats.

Charles said he also suffered injury to his legs, where he believes herbicides entered his skin through scratches he had suffered that morning while working among his plants. He said that the damage to blood vessels of the skin in these areas is permanent and has resulted in painful retention of fluid in his legs.

The couple filed a complaint with the Arizona Department of Agriculture, and said that after a follow-up with the agency, they were informed that Ruth Cowan had been spraying Dow’s Sendero and Remedy Ultra at the time of the incident.

Charles Hofmann said he called a phone number he found on the Sendero usage label and spoke with a Dow representative regarding his concerns for his and Karen’s health. Hofmann said he was told everything was probably fine and that they were likely just suffering a minor allergic reaction.

According to email correspondence Hofmann provided to New Times, Dow representative Vince Aguiar visited the Cowan spraying site and neighboring properties on June 21, 2017. Hofmann said he was given no notice and was not home at the time of Aguiar’s visit.

The Dow rep visited a neighboring vineyard and viewed Hofmann’s grape plants “from the road,” the email stated.

“Based upon my observation of the treatment site, the [neighboring vineyard], application details, the road view of your vineyard, and the Department of Agriculture’s involvement, it has been determined that it would be best to let the Department of Agriculture complete their independent analysis of your vineyard,” Aguiar wrote.

In a letter dated October 16, 2017, the Arizona Department of Agriculture informed the Hofmanns that “low levels” of the herbicides’ active ingredients had been found in samples taken from their property. As such, said the letter, the “defendant” in the case would be fined. This concluded the department’s involvement in the matter, the letter said.

Arizona Department of Agriculture Public Information Officer Rob Smook said the defendant was crop duster operator Tri-Rotor, which was ordered to pay a fine of $578 to the state.

According to Smook, Tri-Rotor was the applicator that had been found responsible for the damage to the Pipkorns’ home in June 2017 as well.

In addition to being contracted for the Buffett border project, Crop Production Services (now Nutrien Ag Solutions) served as the contractor on the 2017 Ladd and Cowan sprayings, according to Nutrien representative John English.

According to English, Nutrien (a Dow distributor) contracts out the actual application of chemicals to crop dusters like Tri-Rotor.

And, according to Smook, the fine levied against Tri-Rotor in October 2017 covered both the Pipkorn and Hofmann incidents, as well as damage to a third property affected by the Cowan spraying, owned by another party, Janet Myles. Despite this single small fine, these were separate events that resulted in separate investigations, related to the spraying of two different ranches, in different parts of the county.

The Hofmanns said the majority of grapes and other fruit-bearing plants on the site ceased to produce and had to be replaced. On June 13, 2018, the Hofmanns filed a civil suit against Cowan and Tri-Rotor.

Crop Production Services (and, later, Nutrien Ag Solutions, Inc.) was added by the Hofmanns as a defendant.
The suit, which is ongoing, alleges counts of negligence, liability, and trespass — and seeks more than $1 million in damages.

In June 2019, according to Smook, at least two more large-scale aerial herbicide sprayings targeting mesquite took place in Cochise County: on the Davis Ranch (operated by Fred and Peggy Davis, active in the conservation districts’ federal anti-immigrant litigation), just west of the Cowans’ NI Ranch; and on Harvey Allen’s ranch, just north of NI Ranch.

“Everything is sprayed in the headwaters of something.” – Nutrien's John English.

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According to Arizona Water Protection Fund documents, the Davises intended to spray headwaters of draws that flow into the San Pedro River and Whitewater Draw. This would take place in June, just before the monsoon rainy season in July.

The San Pedro River and Whitewater Draw are both protected wetland/riparian areas — and both, respectively, feed the San Pedro River and Whitewater Draw watersheds and their aquifers.

The Davis spraying, according to records, would be paid for through Arizona Water Protection Fund and NRCS EQIP grants.

Michael Gregory, an activist who helped create the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in 1988, said spraying the herbicides on these areas could pose a risk to wetland/riparian ecosystems, and possibly area groundwater.

Nutrien’s John English denied the potential for contamination of water resources situated downstream of the headwaters sprayed by the Davises.

Since the soil is low in organic content such as “leaf litter,” English said, it is unlikely that monsoon rains would carry any organic matter contaminated with the herbicidal poisons into the water.

When asked whether monsoon rains might carry contaminated leaf litter from the many acres of poisoned trees at the draws’ headwaters into the river and other water sources, English said, “I guess it seems like you’re trying to go down a rabbit hole.”

“Everything is sprayed in the headwaters of something,” he added.

According to Smook, the 2019 Davis and Allen sprayings resulted in at least another seven complaints of herbicide drift from vintners, residents, pecan growers, and ranchers.

Among them was Ruth Cowan — who, Smook said, called the Arizona Department of Agriculture on June 28, 2019, to join the chorus of complaints related to aerial herbicide spraying conducted by the Davises. Charles Hofmann, who says his land was damaged by the spraying at Cowan’s ranch, was among those joined by Cowan in the complaint against the Davis spraying.

The Davises, Cowan, and Allen could not be reached for comment.

But, through all the chaos, Cochise County rancher Moroney offered some insight.

He said he understands that there can be good cause to thin mesquite in some areas. But, recognizing the ecological and forage value of the plant, and citing a desire not to further contaminate a county that has been polluted by the mining industry for more than a century, Moroney said he has opted not to spray his land.

Moreover, it was clear, he said, given the original program’s focus on the border and Buffett’s involvement and rhetoric, that the effort was primarily focused on suppressing the movement of undocumented immigrants.

“We did it with Agent Orange in Vietnam — it’s the same kind of stuff that our government does all the time, when they decide a particular people are gonna be the enemy,” Moroney said. “My impression was that it was understood that this is Buffett’s right-wing agenda that has found — that has resonated with — disgruntled Ladd, and other entities, for a perfect storm of sorts.”
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Beau Hodai