I was recently asked what motivates us to raise poultry and grow fruits and vegetables on our small, family farm in Iowa. Aside from our love for growing green things and caring for animals, I realized that my answer could be boiled down to the simple idea that we care about the well-being of the people in our communities and the environment that surrounds us.
My spouse, Tammy, and I founded the Genuine Faux Farm in 2004 with the idea that we would produce healthy food for the local markets.
Farming is difficult, and there are numerous challenges that come with the job. But, we are willing to face the natural risk that one (or all) of weather, pests, weeds and diseases may cause problems. We are fine with ‘signing up’ to wind our way through the maze that is marketing, and we will even accept that we must make adjustments for a changing climate.
However, the one thing that has threatened our survival as a farm the most was something we did not consider when we started - off target applications of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.
Chemical misapplications - food growers lose
In 2012, a spray plane flew over a neighboring soybean field, applying a combination of insecticides and fungicides in the early evening on a Friday. I was outside checking on the poultry and taking a few photos for record keeping when the plane roared directly overhead. I felt drops of liquid as it passed by, and I realized we were about to experience our worst fear for our farm.
The plane took multiple passes over half of the farm, failing to turn off the spray on each pass. The spray landed on our turkey and hen flocks. The high tunnel, our most productive field, and a native area we treasured as pollinator habitat were in the flight path.
To make a long story less long, we navigated the process of reporting the event to the Iowa Pesticide Bureau and our organic certifier. We secured testing to determine if our vegetable crops would be safe for consumption. They were not, so we destroyed all of the crops in the spray zone. We moved the poultry out of the spray zone and opted not to sell eggs for three months, destroying those as well. I sought medical attention for breathing problems in the days that followed and noticed that I was getting sunburned easily. Both symptoms were listed as possible acute reactions for exposure to two of the chemicals.
This off-target application (and other less serious drift events since that time) have encouraged me to think hard about this problem. I have come to a few conclusions.
This is about food safety
The vast majority of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides listed for use on row crops are not intended for fruits and vegetables grown for direct human consumption. Fresh produce is not considered safe if there are detectable amounts of these chemicals over a certain threshold level. For those chemicals that might be rated for fresh produce there is a ‘set-back’ period, during which time the product is not considered safe. Unfortunately, drift from row crops is usually not timed to match the set-back period prior to anticipated harvest of the food crop.
This puts the food grower into an untenable position. If the grower opts to sell the product anyway, and someone becomes ill, it is up to the grower to deal with the liability that might follow. Most farms, like ours, are concerned about the well-being of their customers and they would not consider this first alternative. Meanwhile, the significant monetary cost and delays in test results means growers aren’t likely to get results in time to sell the crop, even if it is negative.
For most farmers, the only real choice that can be made is to destroy the crop.
This is about worker safety
Small-scale and diversified farms often rely on farm workers to accomplish the tasks necessary to raise the products they sell. Our farm tends to hire seasonal employees who are out of high school or college for the summer months. If the weather is ‘nice enough’ to spray, then it is highly probable that we will be outside with our crew performing farm tasks.
Farms like ours care about their workers’ health. We recognize that these are the sons and daughters of people in our communities. If there is a chemical application nearby and the wind is heading our way, we pull our workers out of the field. If we are lucky, we can move them to another location on the farm. If not, the work simply does not get done. It does not make sense that one business should halt operation at the whim of another.
But, again, the only real choice is to protect our people.
This is about environmental impact and the future of growing food
Our farm relies heavily on the services nature provides. We consider our pollinators to be an important workforce that needs to be paid with appropriate habitat and food sources. Our crops do best in healthy soils with a diverse microbiome to support germination and proper growth.
The continued over-use and off-target applications of pesticides are negatively impacting the environment in which we grow your food. We have noticed spotty germination of many of our direct-seeded crops that cannot be attributed to the seed or natural causes, but are consistent with herbicide residual effects. We have observed inhibited plant growth in our peppers, tomatoes and squash, indicating the likelihood of dicamba drift damage.
It seems that our only choice is to stop growing.
We still want to grow food for our community
Despite everything, we still intend to raise poultry and produce for people in our surrounding communities. But, our stamina is not what it once was. Farms like ours need help if they are to survive. Part of the help can come in the form of changes to our policies surrounding the application and use of pesticides.
So, what can we do? Here are five suggestions:
Make it easier for farmers to test for pesticides on food crops.
Provide tools for efficient reporting of drift events.
Get pesticide applicators to carry more of the responsibility for communication with neighbors.
Increase penalties to levels that serve as a disincentive for improper pesticide application.
Encourage the EPA to raise the bar for pesticides that can be approved for use.
Build a future where farmers are not reliant on chemical-intensive agriculture.