Yet since the advent of industrial agriculture after World War II, the on-the-ground reality of country life has changed.
Widespread adoption of mono-cropping agricultural systems has ramped up reliance on chemical inputs. Too often, farmers find themselves trapped on a pesticide treadmill — and farmers, workers and families in rural communities find themselves on the front lines of the resulting chemical exposures.
Rural health risks high
In the U.S. and around the world, families in rural, agricultural areas live at the interface of livelihood and chemical exposure.
Farm families, workers and those living near fields face a host of diseases and disorders today that simply weren’t seen before chemical-intensive farming became widespread. Scientists have linked many of these health issues to pesticide exposure, including:
- Birth defects: Researchers say rates of birth defect in rural areas are highest among infants conceived in the spring and summer, when pesticide levels spike in surface water.
- Autism: California rural children whose mothers were exposed to certain pesticides during pregnancy were six times more likely to have autism spectrum disorders.
- Cancer: Farmers, applicators, cropduster pilots and manufacturers have higher rates of several kinds of cancer, including prostate, melanoma and others.
- Parkinson’s: Many studies link pesticides with Parkinson’s Disease, including one in 2007 that found pesticide applicators had nearly double the risk of Parkinson’s disease.
In many parts of the country, rural Indigenous peoples who live near industrial agriculture face particular challenges. For some Native communities, combating the health harms of pesticide drift is part of broader struggles for food sovereignty that may also include restoring and expanding indigenous food systems through seed-saving and tribal farming initiatives.
Rural women making change
Women are the fastest growing group of farm owners in this country. Of the 3.3 million farmers counted in 2007 Census, more than one million were women.
In Iowa, almost half of the land is now held by women, and according to the Women, Food & Agriculture Network, many of those women have a conservation ethic that guides their choices to practices that "nourish, rather than poison, the earth." Women farmers are three times more likely to run an organic or sustainable farm than an industrial one.
Women are also a growing percentage of the farm workforce, and farmworker women are taking courageous steps to protect their children and communities from pesticide exposure.
In California’s central valley, for example, a group of farmworker women used PAN’s Drift Catcher to find out what chemicals were drifting into their homes from nearby fields. They also did biomonitoring to track the pesticides that were being absorbed into their bodies — and likely the bodies of their children. Luz Medellin Rodriguez was one of the study participants:
I want the results of my tests to be publicized to awake the conscience of the authorities so they will do something to protect our health.
Rural women across the U.S. are emerging as a powerful force for change.
The movement to rebuild local food economies is gaining traction across the country, offering real opportunities for family farmers and rural communities alike.
While the challenges of health harms related to intensive industrial agriculture are still very real, tackling issues like pesticide drift is now front and center in rural areas. In his blog, "Who’s building the new food system? Farmers,” PAN organizer Lex Horan describes this shift:
As I talk with farmers and other rural residents who live near pesticide-intensive agriculture, the commonalities in their stories stand out. I hear time and again that pesticide drift is a fact of life — unacceptable, but not unexpected.
PAN is committed to working alongside rural people across the country — from farm families in Iowa to Indigenous peoples in rural Minnesota and Hawai’i — to document pesticide harms and organize campaigns to build thriving, healthy local communities.