Experiencing pesticide drift, part I

On July 14, 2014, our vegetable farm experienced pesticide drift from a crop-duster. It has taken nearly five months for the resulting investigation to run its course, and only now can we tell the full story with all the information. In this three-part series we’ll discuss (I) the actual experience and immediate aftermath, (II) the arc of getting the government involved, and (III) the practical and philosophical considerations drawn from this experience. Throughout this topic we’ll use the phrase “pesticide” as defined by the EPA:

Though often misunderstood to refer only to insecticides, the term pesticide also applies to herbicides, fungicides, and various other substances used to control pests…Under United States law, a pesticide is also any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant”.

The following narrative is drawn from written statements requested by the Missouri Bureau of Pesticide Control as part of their official investigation into the incident. We each wrote a separate narrative of our memories and experiences, which I have woven together here using the original text with only minimal editing to remove redundancy and confusion, and a few notes added for clarification where needed. These are our words from the time presenting what we experienced, as we recorded it several weeks later.

ERIC: My wife and I own and operate Chert Hollow Farm, LLC, a diversified farm that is our full-time business. We primarily raise and sell a wide variety of fresh produce through a subscription program known as Community Supported Agriculture, in which customers pay us up front to deliver weekly shares of produce from our farm throughout the growing season. We also make limited deliveries to restaurants. As our business was Certified Organic from 2009-2013 (note: though not in 2014), and we have always marketed our farm’s products as chemical-free, any potential contamination is a serious issue for our customers and our own business integrity.            

On Monday evening, July 14, 2014, my wife and I had finished dinner and were preparing to go back to work outdoors on our farm when we heard a loud aircraft overhead, louder and lower than any we’ve heard before in our eight years here. 

JOANNA: I believe it was around 6:30 p.m. or so when I stepped out the door of the house to start my evening tasks (which that evening was to transplant broccoli, among other things). At the moment I stepped out the door, I heard a loud noise. I yelled “What the **** is that?”, while the thought went through my head that the medical helicopter which often flies overhead was crashing on top of us. In a moment, the plane came into view, passing in a north-south trajectory at extremely low elevation almost directly over the house. Eric heard it from inside the house and said he thought it was a crop duster. At the time I did not know it was headed for the fields to our north, so I gathered supplies for transplanting broccoli, loaded the work cart, and went out to the main vegetable field.

ERIC: Having been in Columbia that afternoon making produce deliveries and doing other errands, I began to start unloading coolers and other items from our truck (parked in front of the house). However, as it repeatedly flew very low and close, I began to be concerned about its flight path and spraying pattern as it kept coming back around over or nearly over us, judging from the sound. Unfortunately, from in front of our south-facing house in a narrow valley , with a ridge and treeline to the north, I was unable to see the plane itself.

JOANNA: By the time I reached the field, it was clear that the plane was treating the fields to our north across Silver Fork Creek. I took note of the weather: Clear and cool, but with a north wind, not a good wind direction for our location relative to the fields being treated. I distinctly remember feeling the air movement on my face.

Somehow my mind stayed in denial that we could be within reach of spray drift; our organic inspectors had been so full of praise about what a great location we had, and we considered ourselves safe. So I initially went about my business. I got as far as applying one bucket of compost to the broccoli bed, but I was watching & listening to the plane as I went. Based on sound & sight, it appeared to be making a series of passes of a roughly east-west alignment. From my location in the middle of our vegetable field, I could clearly see it as it was making passes over the commodity crop field. Only some trees were screening the view at times. With direct line-of-sight from me to the plane, and a north wind, I inferred that there was nothing stopping spray from drifting in our direction. I spent some time watching, trying to process the implications in my mind, and trying to decide what to do. My perspective was primarily from the center of the vegetable field, where I had left the cart.

At some point, it became clear to me that it was more important to protect myself than to get an evening of work done. I thought I could feel a gentle burning in my eyes and a soreness in my throat. I decided to call off the transplanting, and I headed back towards the house to look for Eric.

ERIC: I hurriedly finished unloading the truck, as I had decided to drive out to a place with a better view and try to watch and possibly take a photo if it turned out I had reason for concern. I then began to drive out toward our own vegetable fields, where I met my wife coming back. We discussed the situation for a minute or two, becoming increasingly concerned over the possibility of spray drift into our valley, given the weather conditions at the time. Below, I copy the official hourly weather summary for our area from the National Weather Service, which records northwest winds during the period in question:

HOURLY WEATHER FOR COLUMBIA MON JUL 14 2014 (CDT)
455 PM MOSUNNY   75  59  57 NW13
555 PM MOSUNNY   77  59  53 NW14
655 PM SUNNY         76  60  57 NW9

I decided to drive out to the public blacktop road and down to the crop fields in question, to get a better view and photo of the plane and ascertain its spray pattern. When I reached that area several minutes later, having followed another car, I pulled to the side of the road on the southern-most edge of the crop fields where the tree screen starts, just past the bridge over Silver Fork Creek, and stepped out of the truck. The air was silent, the plane apparently having left and I never heard or saw it again.

However, almost immediately upon stepping out of the truck, I became aware of a distinctly artificial, sharp, somewhat sweet smell in the air and my eyes started to feel irritated. This was while standing on the blacktop of a well-travelled public road, as Old Number 7 serves as the commuter corridor for people for miles around. There are also several houses within a short distance of these fields, close to the road, and I believe the car just ahead of me had had a window rolled down. I immediately jumped back in the truck and returned home, during which period my throat also started to feel sore and irritated and I began to develop a headache. I found my wife still part-way out towards our vegetable fields, working in a pasture near our goat herd. We continued to work there while we discussed the situation, and she also began to feel some physical discomfort; by now we were both quite upset. I later scrubbed out the back of the truck with soap and water, as we use the vehicle on a near-daily basis for hauling fresh produce and I was certain the truck had been exposed given my physical reaction.

JOANNA: Before Eric drove off to Old Number 7, we decided to cut short our evening work to the minimum necessary animal chores, which included moving the temporary fence for the goats and removing white snakeroot (a poisonous plant) from the paddock that they would be on the next day. I worked on this while Eric was gone, and noticed that I was developing a headache. When Eric returned, he complained that he had inhaled a lungful of lingering chemical from his trip down Old Number 7, and he complained of burning eyes, sore throat, and headache, the exact same symptoms that I had independently come to the conclusion that I was experiencing.

Goat management took a while, but was not optional. We were done with animal chores and back in the house by, I believe, 8 or 8:30.

ERIC: I felt mild eye discomfort, sore throat, and headache for the rest of the evening, as did my wife, though neither of us went to a doctor because we are self-employed farmers who cannot easily spare the time or money such a visit would take, particularly in an after-hours setting, and it was not debilitating. By the next morning I felt no further physical discomfort, but did have an episode which felt something like a panic attack after doing morning chores with our dairy goats and chickens. At this point we were both extremely stressed and trying to decide what to do, while simultaneously still having a farm to run.

JOANNA: On July 15, we looked up the landowner on the Boone County Parcel Viewer, and found a phone number online. Eric called and got the name and phone number of the farmer. The farmer never responded to messages left on his answering machine/voice mail (note: neither the landowner nor the farmer live here; the former lives fifteen miles away, the latter closer to fifty).

We emailed our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members before noon on Tuesday, July 15 to inform them that a crop duster had treated the fields to our north and that drift was a concern, but not confirmed. We continued harvest on our usual schedule and distributed food as usual from the field in question on July 17, with some harvest taking place on July 16 (note: our standard delivery days in 2014 were Mondays and Thursdays).

Lacking knowledge of what had been sprayed and what we were dealing with, we refrained from going outside, other than essential animal chores, for approximately 24 hours after the plane’s presence, hoping to hear back from the farmer so we could make a quick determination about the situation. Thereafter, we had little choice but to continue work & harvest as usual.

ERIC: Having heard no response to repeated messages left on the farmer’s voice mail, we eventually (note: one week later) called Boone County Extension, who referred us to the Bureau of Pesticide Control, with whom we spoke on the phone before filing an official complaint. During this period, we continued to harvest and deliver produce, as we had heard from no customers rejecting our offer to stop delivery, and the guaranteed loss to our business of not doing so was much clearer than the uncertainty surrounding what might or might not have drifted onto our property. But it is extremely important for us to know whether, and what, might have reached our produce fields, thus threatening the physical health of our farm’s crops and ecosystem as well as our business integrity as a chemical-free farm as demanded by our customers. We have also lost a great deal of time and mental health to this incident over the past few weeks.

END NARRATIVE

Many factors combined to make the week following this incident incredibly stressful. Not knowing what had been sprayed, we didn’t know if our crops would start dying or if we shouldn’t be harvesting & delivering fresh produce. Having felt physical side effects, we didn’t know if any larger personal health issue would develop. Being ignored by the other farmer meant we couldn’t get any timely answers to these concerns. Not hearing back from most of our CSA members meant we had little guidance from our customers.

This all happened at a time of year when we need to work seven days a week to keep up with near-daily harvests for biweekly produce deliveries, transplanting of fall crops, daily goat milking and pasture management, and so much more. The stress was immense. In part II of this series, we’ll discuss what happened when we finally called in the government instead of trying to resolve this on a personal level, and why it took nearly five months to get a solid answer on what had happened.

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