Our farm will soon observe an anniversary that we would rather not think about. On July 27, 2012, a spray plane applied a mix of three pesticides to a field adjacent to our vegetable and poultry farm. The flyer left the nozzles on as they flew over the western half of our farm, hitting our most productive vegetable field, our high tunnel, a natural pollinator area, our pastured laying hen flock, our turkeys, and me with this mix of chemicals.
None of the pesticides were rated as safe for human or animal exposure on application. I had to seek medical attention for breathing problems that I battled over the following weeks. I sunburned more easily for a month after. These chemicals were not rated for use on crops to be consumed by humans, so we destroyed all of the vegetables in the affected area. We destroyed eggs produced by the hens for the next three months. And, we did everything we could do to mitigate the damage.
What it felt like then
At the time, our farm was in its eighth season providing food for our 110-member CSA farmshare program, a pre-school and retirement facilities. We kept our customers informed via email and through our farm blog. Two days after we were sprayed, I wrote the following:
“Why is this so disturbing to me? Even though there have been stressful events every season we have done this and the work is hard, we have genuinely felt that we were doing something positive, useful and of value. We do this work for good, supportive people. The work is solid, honest work. It is diverse. It runs the gamut from highly skilled to mundane. We can solve puzzles and test hypotheses. I was actually feeling pretty upbeat about the way this season was setting up. I felt like we were making good decisions and that there were some positive results from our efforts.
After one fairly short event on a Friday evening, I want to mow it all down, sell the place and move away.”
For those of you who have poured yourself into something you truly believed in, only to watch it being dismantled in moments, I think you can relate to how we felt. We felt betrayed. We were lost with no real sense of where we needed to go next. We were frightened. We had no answers for most of the pressing questions this chemical trespass left us with. We were devastated.
Tainted produce no one could eat
Later that same year
The two of us did what we could to make the best of things. There were still crops on the eastern half of the farm to maintain and harvest. The animals still required our care. We still had customers who wanted the products from the part of our farm that were safe for them to eat. And, we had to do what we had to do to address the fall-out from overspray. Here is what we shared with our customers on September 25 of that year:
“I don't know anymore if I'm angry, depressed, disappointed or what. Maybe all of the above. But, I do know that something is wrong when so many people I meet have their own stories of encounters with applicators who cannot seem to contain their spraying to the fields they were hired to cover. There is something wrong when farmers can contract with someone else, who then hire another company, to do chemical applications in their fields — and it isn't done with increased precision, efficiency or care despite the argument that this should place the application into the hands of an 'expert.'”
At this point, we had more answers — even if we still had plenty of questions. I had recovered from the acute symptoms caused by pesticide exposure. But the emotional wounds were still there and were re-opened every time we went out to harvest the crops that would never be consumed. Both of us could still be brought to the verge of tears (yes, even this crusty, “tough” guy) whenever we had to discuss where things stood.
A year and a half later
I have heard that time brings healing. But, sometimes the healing takes more time than you want. Here is what we shared on January 2014:
“What I don't forget is how both of us FELT during that time. In fact, I am typing this because I still react strongly whenever I have to spend some time working on the case. The feelings of anger, frustration, worry, fear, helplessness, confusion and hurt are still there. I don't necessarily feel these on a daily basis anymore, but they sure do resurface quickly when something calls my attention back to July 27, 2012. But, now, my feelings are dominated by anger, frustration, worry, fear and helplessness because it could happen on our farm again. And, it DOES happen in so many places — over and over and OVER again.”
It would take another year or so before we could reach closure on this case when litigation was completed out of court. For those who are curious about the results, we received payment for the expenses and lost income that came as a direct result of this misapplication. We chose not to take this to the trial date because we no longer felt strong enough to fight for damages beyond these direct losses. We were worn out and had given our best to the process. It was time to move on.
Even now, I find this article difficult to write. Both my wife Tammy and I flinch when we hear an airplane overhead and we become short-tempered as we approach the end of July. You see, we are preparing for ‘spray season’ again. The bad news is — there is no way to prepare for spray season.
I am taking the time to share these things with you because I believe it is important to increase your understanding of how chemical trespass impacts the people who work closest to where these pesticides are applied. It is not because I like the attention. It is not because I want sympathy. And, I would rather not approach the end of July with fear and trepidation.
I need you to learn how chemical-intensive agriculture has costs that we all, farmers included, must pay. And I need you to understand enough of what it feels like so you are motivated to join PAN in building a food and farm system free of the negative impacts of pesticides. I want you to see how important this is without going through what we have experienced.
The final stages of healing will come for me only when we make a real difference. We’ll know we made that difference when our food and farm system is characterized by respect, sustainability, diversity, and justice.