Published Mar 6, 2014

Pesticide Drift: Pack up your babies and your bags…

By Liz Kolbe


In November 2012, horticulture farmers at the PFI Planning/Priority Setting Meeting identified pesticide spray drift as the top concern and research priority. Many people whose farms are hit with spray drift feel powerless, alienated, and unsure of the proper next steps. The farmers featured below agreed to share their spray drift experiences as part of our ongoing work on pesticide drift. All of the farmers featured in this post have reported an incident to IDALS, however, this list represents only a small sampling of PFI farmers who have been affected by spray drift, and many farms have been hit with drift more than once. These stories are offered to provide glimpse of the experience, to increase understanding and open dialogue. More stories are available in the Winter 2014 Issue of The Practical Farmer, and in the February 25 Farminar presented by Rob Faux.

Anonymous Contributor

“We left Iowa because of repeated spray drift. The first ill wind hit us in the Spring of 2007 at the height of central Iowa’s resplendent but ephemeral green season when I was bulging seven months along with the weight of our second child. We owned a small acreage and I was learning to garden organically in my free time to provide for our family’s food needs. We relied on this produce to reduce our household expenses on food. One day in early May, a pungent chemical smell met my nose in the garden.  I looked up to find the neighbor spraying his fields south of us across the road.

Six days later the leaves on our willows browned and withered despite the rains, providing a sobering contrast to the new life emerging around and within us. The new foliage on our deciduous shrubs and trees were curled as, most notably, were the tomato leaves in the garden. Not knowing what to do, I brought samples to ISU Extension staff who confirmed there were no disease or pest problems and suggested we refrain from eating any garden produce for the next two months while declaring our willow trees “toast.” Extension then referred us to IDALS who responded within three days by taking our report and collecting samples.

Shortly thereafter, we knocked on the door of the farmer I had observed spraying his fields although we had never met him before. He apologized for the spray drift and said he would check with his insurance company about compensation for both the garden and trees. Two weeks passed and no word from the farmer so we brought him a receipt of the garden plants we had purchased to replace those affected by the drift. We invited him to look at the damage whether we were home or not. We are not sure if he ever did. In July, his insurance company paid our claim of $250 for the loss of the garden. Although the vegetables these plants would have produced would have been worth more than $250, we felt we could only reasonably claim the replacement cost of the plants. Six months later in November, IDALS sent us the sampling results, which revealed glyphosate and 2, 4-D residues. Because this was a private and not a commercial applicator, we were informed by IDALS that no enforcement action would be taken.

Two years later in 2009, we found ourselves in the same situation only this time, the applicators were commercial. Our garden and willow trees were hit once again shortly after I observed an aerial sprayer applying pesticides north of our property but not on adjacent land. We contacted IDALS once again and a pesticide investigator showed up in within a day or two. Five months later, we received the sample results confirming drift had occurred not only from the aerial applicator but also from the local coop. Nineteen months after our first call to IDALS this second time, we received carbon copy warning letters from IDALS addressed to the aerial applicator and the coop citing both for violations using registered pesticides in a manner inconsistent with labeling. Although we had only detected visible herbicide damage from glyphosate, lab results showed additional invisible insecticide and fungicide residues in the samples IDALS collected including chlorpyrifos and lambda-cyhalothrin (insecticides), and pyraclostrobin and propiconazole (fungicides).

In 2010, we observed, once again, herbicide damage on shrubs and garden crops. We contacted IDALS a third time and a new investigator took samples. Although 2, 4-D residues were found in these samples, the investigation by IDALS was unable to reveal the source this time so they closed the case.

What changed as a result of these experiences? We left the state of Iowa. When you consider the chronic exposure brought by multiplying the number of times different pesticides are applied to each field by the number of landowners within drift distance and the fact that nothing changes as a result of filing and validating multiple complaints, you give up. You decide you are not willing to cede decisions about your family’s wellbeing to a system that values wealth above health. So when the opportunity arrives to continue your career in agriculture somewhere safe from chronic exposure to agricultural pesticides, you pack your babies and your bags and you move as far away as you can. And you try not to look back at your friends who are still there.”