By Kim Robson:
First we heard about monocultured, genetically modified (GM) farming methods resulting in Monsanto’s RoundUp weedkiller showing up in air and water samples. Now even organic food is being threatened with being contaminated by these chemicals and transgenes because nothing natural lives in a vacuum — everything is interconnected.
Now several organic farms in central Missouri are experiencing unintended crop dusting from their neighbors, effectively ruining their crops.
Eric and Joanna Reuter have run Chert Hollow Farm since 2006. The tiny organic farm doesn’t plant genetically modified crops and is approved to use only a select few kinds of chemicals and fertilizers.
Their neighbors, however, conventionally grow hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans. One July evening in 2014, Joanna was transplanting some broccoli when she heard a sound. “I basically heard this loud noise,” she said. “It was coming north to south.” A crop duster passed alarmingly close to their property.
It wasn’t long after that when they began experiencing headaches and skin irritation, and they knew the crop duster had blown some unknown chemicals onto their land. Without knowing what it was, they were left wondering about the authenticity of their organic crops.
“We were concerned about how do we properly market ourselves, because we feel very strongly about openness and honesty,” Eric Reuter said. “We felt a little odd about marketing farm shares and such for the next year as a sustainable, chemical-free farm.” Ultimately, the Reuters decided not to sell their produce this year. They hope the contaminated soil will recover by next year’s growing season. It was a huge financial hit on their small business.
The farmers next door, whose crop duster destroyed the Reuter’s entire year’s crop, received only a warning letter. “We’re more susceptible to that kind of contamination than we thought,” Eric said. “And that raises the stakes significantly for a farm like ours.”
Farmers in the United States use almost 900 million pounds of chemicals annually to protect crops from weeds, fungus and insects. Although conventional farms can also get hit with unwanted pesticides, it’s not as big of a deal for them, as they can still sell their crops. But the $40 billion organic industry is extremely vulnerable to pesticide drift. As organic food becomes more and more popular, and with more new organic farms in operation, these kinds of disputes will become more commonplace.
The National Pesticide Information Center says there’s no clear picture of how common pesticide drift will become for the nearly 20,000 organic farms nationwide. Each state has an agriculture department charged with handling investigations of pesticide drift, but each state deals with the investigations differently. The Missouri Department of Agriculture says they’re doing their best but are limited by the turnaround time of lab analysis and the difficulty of gathering records from the crop dusters in the region.
The organic industry is pushing for national regulations that give higher priority to pesticide drift investigations and apply stricter penalties to negligent farmers. Currently, investigations can drag on for months and penalties can vary wildly. There is no federal policy outlining pesticide drift investigations or methods of recourse.
“Once we do have a federal approach to pesticide drift, I suspect we’ll be a lot more coordinated in our responses, and potentially, have better prevention strategies and more timely reaction to events when they do occur,” says Nate Lewis of the Organic Trade Association. He says that drift needs to move to the forefront of policy efforts, especially as organic acreage grows and farmers become more aware of pesticide drift.
Paul Schlegel of the American Farm Bureau Federation downplays the problem. He feels that the current state regulatory system handles drift incidents adequately (unless the drift problem escalates), and that the focus should be on improving education and drift reduction technology. “I think you would probably find in the organic sector as whole, there’s a greater reluctance to accept pesticides as a whole,” he said hilariously and without a hint of irony. He concludes that pesticides are simply part of the food production landscape all farms have to navigate.
While organic farmer Margot McMillen was recently scanning her crops after a rain at the Terra Bella Farm, about 25 miles from Chert Hollow, she noticed possible pesticide damage on her grape vines. “This curling of the leaf is real characteristic, and there’s a real thinness of that leaf,” she said, holding a grape leaf in her hand. “To me they look like little fists, ‘Help, help.’” In 2014, pesticide drift destroyed $25,000 worth of her tomatoes. The state agriculture department confirmed that drift had occurred, but couldn’t or wouldn’t identify the offender. This year, she’s been forced to grow her crops “defensively.” Large bushes were planted to block the wind from the road; other crops were relocated beyond a ridge and away from other farms; and the tomatoes were moved inside a greenhouse structure.
Even when contaminated produce survives, it no longer can be sold as organic, damaging the farm’s reputation. McMillen knows her farm is still vulnerable. A federal policy would help, but for now, planting defensively — even though it’s not foolproof — is the best farmers can do to protect their crops from contamination.