Iowa’s organic farms, vineyards, apiaries and other non-conventional farms surrounded by row crops treated with pesticides are at risk of being hit with drifting spray that can leave their farms’ futures uncertain.
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The drift comes from misuse on neighboring farms, mostly the result of someone not following the label instructions on a pesticide, including requirements that a product not be used if wind speeds are too high.
Gretchen Paluch, bureau chief of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s pesticide bureau, said the state averages a little more than 100 incidents of pesticides misuse a year, ranging from as low as 60 to as high as 140 incidents in a given year.
In the past, farmers wanting to know if neighbors’ pesticide drifted onto their crops had to wait four to six months for answers from the state’s pesticide investigation program. Independent testing with a faster turnaround time was an option but pricey.
Those farmers can get faster answers now, usually within just under 12 days on average, after pressure from activists and hearings on a bill proposed during the past legislative session, officials with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship say.
Faster answers can make a big difference for farmers like Rob and Tammy Faux, who run Genuine Faux Farm near Tripoli, Iowa.
A few years ago, the roar of an airplane spraying pesticides on a neighboring field shook the Faux farm and its owners. Chemicals landed on their organic crops and pastures, some of the turkeys and laying hens and on Rob Faux himself.
“It was scary. It was frustrating. We were angry. We were sad. We ran the whole gamut of emotions. But the worst thing was, we didn’t know what our next step would be at that time,” Rob Faux said.
The proposed legislation credited with pushing for faster test times urged the state to switch testing from the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s pesticide bureau to the University of Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory.
Activists and farming groups pushed for the legislation.
A Senate bill didn’t make it to the floor and, although some activists and legislators IowaWatch spoke with were hopeful the two state agencies were discussing future changes, talks outside of the legislature stalled.
However, the agriculture department’s legislative liaison Matt Gronewald said the turnaround time at the department sped up after officials there looked at its lab’s testing process and prioritized complaints.
Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, said he is waiting to see if the problem has been resolved through the agriculture department’s efforts before planning any future legislation.
“My biggest concern was that we weren’t going to have enough support to pass legislation and if we can work it out among our own agencies, it is better to have that solution than none at all,” Kinney, a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee, said.
Faster testing turnaround seen as a win
Linda Wells, the Midwest director of organizing for the Pesticide Action Network, said she was glad to hear about the faster turnaround times and that, if the department is committed to consistently providing the faster returns, that’s a win.
“It will make a difference in people’s decision-making process if they get that critical information about what to do with their crops,” she said.
The organization has been reaching out to farmers who recently have reported incidents of drift to see how quickly they are getting feedback and will continue to monitoring turnaround times, she said.
In addition to faster turnaround times, Wells said she hoped the agriculture department incorporates other matters the legislation would have addressed, like being able to file a report online.
Although Gronewald said incidents can be reported through email, telephone or by writing a letter, Wells said information about how to file a report isn’t always easy to find.
“That’s something we’ve been pushing IDALS (the Iowa agriculture department) for is to have more accessible information for people who want to report drift. We think incidents of drift are underreported and some of that is the barrier to figuring out how to do it,” she said.
The current efforts only provide help after the fact, rather than preventing over-spray in the first place or helping individuals recover after an accidental spraying, she said.
“This isn’t about prevention, this is about making it easier for farmers to respond when they do get drifted upon. So we will be working on helping farmers prevent drift and mitigate the damages in the future,” she said.
When the Fauxes moved to Tripoli in 2004 for Tammy Faux’s job at Wartburg College, they put in a big garden. Tending to the garden was supposed to be a placeholder until Rob Faux could get a teaching job in the area.
But what started as a large garden and some sales at farmers markets soon evolved into a Community Supported Agriculture venture that has grown to over 100 shareholders. Produce on the farm was first certified organic in 2007.
In addition to farming about five acres of fruits and vegetables, the couple raises egg-laying hens and finishes chickens, turkeys and ducks.
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Rob Faux, the only full-time worker on the farm, was out in the field on the evening of July 27, 2012, when a plane spraying pesticides on a neighboring field caught his attention.
“A plane flew over and they can be pretty darn loud when they’re in your area. It flew directly overhead and, right after it flew over my head, I felt droplets land on me.”
The plane flew over pastures holding their hens and turkeys. Faux grabbed the digital camera he kept with him in the field and started taking pictures.
“He (the pilot) was at least 35 to 40 feet in the air as he went over a few trees with the sprayer on. So pretty much the entire west portion of our farm was flown over and the spray application landed on our farm.”
What followed was weeks of uncertainty and many phone calls. The Fauxes called a doctor first, who advised him to take a half-hour-long shower to get the chemicals off his skin. Then they contacted the pesticide bureau in the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, which conducts investigations into pesticide-related incidents or accidents. They called the agriculture department’s organic certification program that certified their farm and tried to get a hold of their neighbors and the local farmers coop.
They also had to tell their shareholders what happened.
“There was a lot of work going on at the farm and we lost a lot of things in just a few moments. And there was a lot of uncertainty for weeks to months afterwards. So I don’t wish this on anybody,” Faux said.
The pesticides made his skin more sensitive to the sun and triggered breathing troubles, he said.
“It’s a frustrating thing when you are an active person who has to do active things, to stop every so many feet and catch your breath. It’s also hard to sell fresh produce and tell people that it’s healthy while you’re hacking away,” he said.
The pesticide inspector came out the Monday following the spraying and gathered samples from the farm. Faux also had kept the clothes he was wearing in a plastic bag, so those could be tested as well. But then he learned that that he and Tammy couldn’t expect to see the results from that testing for four to six months.
According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s brochure on Pesticide Investigation and Enforcement, reports of an accident, incident or loss due to pesticides must be filed within 60 days of the incident. After the incident is filed, the department will respond within five days.
But the agency also notes that it can take an additional 90 days or more to review laboratory analysis reports after they are received. Additionally, it notes that for samples collected during peak season or for samples that include “complex combinations of active ingredients, analysis may take up to 6 months or more.”
Six months would have put Rob Faux past the growing season for most of his produce. He couldn’t wait that long and sent samples to a lab in Oregon at a cost of $1,600.
Those test results came back in about two weeks, he said, and showed that the spray had affected the turkey and hen flocks as well as a high-tunnel building, a type of unheated greenhouse used to extend the growing season, and a field in the southwest portion of the farm with peppers, eggplants, green beans and dry beans.
There was some good news in the results. Some areas of the farm were chemical-free. The produce still could be harvested and consumed and those areas could keep the organic certification. Also, Rob Faux said, he and Tammy could begin moving forward.
“If you wait four to six months for the results from IDALS and from the pesticide bureau, there’s always still this little niggling feeling in the back: ‘Did I make the right decisions?’ Well, we get the results back quickly and it was clear the right decision was to begin clearing things out and doing things to mitigate damages,” he said.
Proposed bills introduced in the Iowa Legislature during the past two sessions have been written to provide farmers with faster testing results. During the most recent legislative session, the Senate bill proposed that the Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory should conduct the testing and analysis of samples instead of having the samples go through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
Although the bill did not make it to the Senate floor it was referred to a subcommittee within the Senate Appropriations Committee.
But also, Kinney said that after listening to individuals who were concerned about the lengthy turnaround time, legislators went back and spoke with the agriculture department and State Hygienic Laboratory. They want to know if some of those tests could be moved to the hygienic lab through administrative changes rather than legislation. Some factors complicating the scenario included costs, and who pays for the testing of those samples, Kinney said.
Christopher Atchison, director of the hygienic laboratory, said the lab has the capability to do the required testing and does does similar testing under a contract with the states of Nebraska and Missouri. The turnaround time for those states typically is about 20 to 25 working days, although it could be up to 45 working days during peak season.
Atchison said the lab already collaborates with Iowa’s agriculture department for some testing, including a recent spraying incident in Marion where fungicides were sprayed on a residential area. The hygienic lab turned results around in under 24 hours, he said.
He said responding to complaints of pesticide over-spray or drift is similar to other types of testing the lab is trained to do, including responding to chemical terrorism.
“It’s very much as response-driven system rather than a regulatory function and that’s something we’re set up to do,” he said. “We’re the designated laboratory for chemical terrorism so our expertise is really trying to identify unknowns and that’s what you have in these kinds of situations. You can assume it’s a crop duster but it can be any number of things: herbicides, fungicides, etc.,” Atchison said.
He said there hasn’t been much discussion about the matter between the two agencies since the legislative session ended and that it would be in the hands of the agriculture department to expand collaborations with the hygienic lab into a routine working relationship.
“We’d look forward to working with them in any way we could to support the responsibilities that they have,” he said.
However, Kinney said, the agriculture department has reconfigured in the meantime the way they deal with those over-spray cases and has said the turnaround time will be faster. Matt Gronewald, the department’s legislative liaison, said the turnaround time for a complaint case during mid-summer was less than 12 days.
Assessing a remedy
If an investigation finds that a state or federal pesticide law has been broken, the agriculture department can take action. Possible enforcement actions include sending a notice of violation, imposing a civil penalty, and revoking or suspending a pesticide license or certification.
The agriculture department only can impose civil penalties on commercial applicators and those penalties are capped at $500 per violation. It cannot require the applicator or individual responsible for overspraying to pay for losses or damages because there is no provision for that in the Iowa Code.
Cases also can be referred to the EPA for review and enforcement actions.
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Paluch, the pesticide bureau chief, said educating pesticide applicators and responding to incidents of misuse is a challenge because the products used change quickly, as do the management systems and application technologies. She added that one key to addressing pesticide misapplication is to have frequent communication between neighbors about pesticide use and areas of concern.
State agriculture department records reported to Practical Farmers of Iowa in April showed 82 reports of alleged pesticide drift made to the department in the 2015 crop year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. The number fluctuates over the years, with 69 reports made in 2014 and 108 in 2013.
The group compiled a more detailed report of alleged spray drift cases from 2008 and 2012. During that time, 58 spray drift incidents dealing with organic crops, fruits and vegetables or horticulture were reported to the agriculture department.
Practical Farmers of Iowa did not examine case files for non-organic crops or cases that weren’t related to agriculture. Of those 58 incidents, 26 resulted in warnings, including four that resulted in multiple warning letters. Twelve cases resulted in civil penalties, which ranged from $260 to $1,200. In 10 cases, no apparent violations were found.
Faux’s case, reported on July 30, 2012, shows up in the report. The case resulted in civil penalties of $1,200 for the commercial applicator for applying pesticides in a manner inconsistent with labeling and in a careless or negligent manner and $260 for the consultant to the commercial applicator.
Chemicals listed as the active ingredient in each pesticide were found in the tested samples gathered by the department.
Faux said he had some initial contact with the cooperative that consulted the aerial application company and neighboring farmer who had it do the spraying, but communications stopped. He said he wasn’t sure what to do then and looked for help, hiring a litigator to file a civil suit against the pilot, the aerial spraying company out of Texas, the farmers coop that consulted the spraying company and the farmer.
“We kind of felt like we were backed against a wall. We had two choices. Choice number one was to say: ‘Well, let’s pretend like it didn’t happen.’ And if we did that, then we’re guilty as everybody else for letting the system get out of hand. So we ended up doing this as much to stand up and say that this isn’t right, we shouldn’t be allowing misapplication of chemicals to go without somebody standing up.”
Phone calls and emails from IowaWatch to the aerial spraying company, coop and farmer were not returned.
The case settled out of court in early 2015. Faux said that since the case settled, he has received calls from local farmers and coops letting him know beforehand about applications, including the chemicals that were going to be used.
“We’d never gotten calls like that before and, frankly, that’s really what I wanted,” Faux said.
“I’m just trying to make this farm work and grow good food for people. And I’m trying to do it in a certain way. And what I’m asking is that people who are growing crops in other ways, just not do thing to stop me from being able to what I’m doing.”
Faux said he has always viewed Iowa as a place of “neighbors supporting neighbors.”
“This shook my faith in that that because now suddenly it feels like maybe being a neighbor isn’t so important anymore. Being practical, being careful is no longer so important to people in the state anymore.
“I think that’s sad because I still, deep down, think that’s true. And I think that’s probably true of the people who farm around me. I think they are probably caring people, who want to do the right things, want to do things well, want to be practical in what they do but the system is preventing them from doing that.”