Experiencing pesticide drift, part III: how drift isn’t taken seriously

Part I, Experiencing pesticide drift
Part II, Calling in the government

Pesticide drift is a threat to sustainable farms like ours, and to the environment as a whole. While pesticide labels clearly spell out legal restrictions and boundaries for proper use, these rules are only as effective as the enforcement activity which punishes misuse. Where illegal and dangerous activity is unpunished, it tends to continue (think speed limits). Our experience clearly demonstrates that the Missouri Department of Agriculture does not take threats to small farms or the environment seriously enough to deter illegal and irresponsible pesticide applications. Consider just some of the warnings and restrictions on the official Priaxor label, which were clearly violated by the confirmed presence of drift contamination on our farm (no emphasis added):

This pesticide is toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates. Drift and runoff may be hazardous to aquatic organisms in water adjacent to treated areas.

It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling. DO NOT apply this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift.

 DO NOT enter or allow worker entry into treated areas during the restricted-entry interval (REI) of 12 hours.

 DO NOT spray when conditions favor drift beyond area intended for application.

DO NOT apply under circumstances where possible drift to unprotected persons, to food, forage, or other plantings that might be damaged, or crops thereof rendered unfit for sale, use or consumption can occur.

Local terrain can influence wind patterns. Every applicator should be familiar with local wind patterns and how they affect spray drift.

The pesticide should only be applied when the potential for drift to adjacent sensitive areas (e.g. bodies of water or non-target crops) is minimal and when wind is blowing away from the sensitive areas.

Almost all these rules were broken, as shown by the map below. Our fields to the south must have been visible to the pilot who flew directly over our land before initiating spraying, and should have been readily identifiable as mid-July food-producing crops. The wind was blowing toward our valley and multiple residences, not to mention the significant permanent waterway of Silver Fork Creek bounding the east and south sides of the application area. We’ve canoed this in the past and found abundant mussels, among other aquatic life; these were likely negatively impacted (see this USGS report, containing a section on one of Priaxor’s active ingredients, pyraclostrobin). The sprayed field is bounded by high ridges on two sides and a power line on a third, forcing an application altitude high enough to increase the risk of drift; the image below shows Joanna’s approximate view of the aircraft as it made its passes ¼ mile away, directly upwind.

pesticide_drift_map SONY DSC

All these strict warnings and guidelines are meaningless if they aren’t sufficiently enforced. Yet the investigation into our case declined to sample for contamination along Silver Fork Creek, and chose not to hear the statement of a neighbor who lives even closer to the sprayed fields, witnessed the application, and wanted to be involved in the process.  Despite numerous violations of the label, no fine was issued (the legal maximum is apparently only $1,000), just a written warning. Pouring salt in the wound, the final report referred to us repeatedly as a “garden”, a phrase we–as professional farmers–find dismissive and insulting. Ironically, had we still been certified organic in the summer of 2014, we might have had a stronger case for damage, as chemical contamination can be grounds for loss of certification regardless of fault or source. Perhaps the decision-makers felt that no direct harm was done, but there are many kinds of damage inherent in pesticide drift that should be considered.

A healthy, microbe-rich soil is inherently necessary for chemical-free farming as we practice it. We rely on healthy soil and diverse biota to produce healthy plants that can resist pests and disease, just as a proper diet & exercise can reduce humans’ need for medications. For many years our overall crop yields have met or exceeded standard published expectations, but our methods require that we have control over what goes into our soil. The risk of pesticide drift threatens that control and undermines the foundation of our farm, as well as our promises to customers who choose to support our methods with their wallets.

Fungicide drift threatens the soil ecology on which sustainable farming is based. Insecticide drift threatens the ecological balance between beneficial and pest insects which a sustainable farm works to maintain. Herbicide drift threatens the very plants which comprise our food and our income. It is unacceptable that any farmer should have to consider neighbors a direct threat to their livelihood, yet that is the position we find ourselves in despite a relatively secluded location praised as ideal for organic agriculture.

The generally accepted form of chemical agriculture inherently creates conditions likely to produce drift contamination. If farming methods depend on timely applications of chemicals, farmers are going to be under intense pressure to make those applications regardless of local conditions. Based on the regulatory system as we’ve now experienced it, there is little economic reason to take drift concerns very seriously when the tiny maximum penalty of $1,000 isn’t issued even for multiple label violations. No one reimburses spray-dependent farmers for costs incurred from faithfully following application restrictions to avoid drift. Yet there is every economic incentive to chemically maximize yield of commodity crops whose production is directly subsidized by the government.

Our pesticide drift was not an isolated incident. The Missouri Department of Agriculture employs eight investigators to handle just the official cases, and news stories about drift damage can easily be found throughout the Midwest. Yet investigations mean little if enforcement and prevention don’t follow through. Few would advocate forgiving a drunk-driving arrest “because no one was hurt.” Driving unsafely is illegal, and should be punished appropriately when caught; one function of laws and penalties is to deter wrong behavior in the first place. But as long as the collective culture of agriculture treats pesticide drift as a shrug-worthy inevitability, farmers like ourselves, and the environment in general, will continue to be at risk for problems beyond our control.

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