Kendall Little is a Gary Marx Journalism Fund intern.
Last summer, farmer Dennis Fett ran outside with his GoPro after hearing a deafening rumble. As he filmed, he captured a low-flying helicopter hovering near the edge of his four-acre farm in Minden, Iowa. The helicopter sprayed pesticides for about 25 minutes, he said.
As the chemical drifted from his neighbor's property to his, it killed not only his crops but also some of his geese, cats, and peacocks.
But the loss — which he estimated at $80,000 — wasn't the worst part, he said. It was dealing with the state's lengthy investigation into the incident, which is ongoing.
“There’s no excuse for why they’re taking so long,” Fett said. The investigation has now lasted more than a year.
For years now, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has been criticized for lengthy investigations into complaints of pesticide misuse. After the herbicide dicamba was introduced, complaints of drifting increased across the Midwest as it has a tendency to become airborne and drift from its target. Now, some Iowa farmers are fed up with waiting for their complaints to be resolved.
“They need to do something to help get us results quicker," said Iowa farmer and Pesticide Action Network employee Rob Faux. "If you're a vegetable grower, like we are, you need to know (what pesticide was sprayed) practically right now, especially if you're about to harvest that crop, whether it's safe or not."
But the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship said it lacks the staff needed to address all the complaints.
The number of pesticide misuse complaints has "more than doubled" over the previous five years, said Mikayla Dolch, the department's spokesperson.
"During that time, we did not have a change in staffing to support the additional program workload," she said, adding that the agency hired one new case officer in December.
It's unclear just how long the investigations in Iowa can last. In 2019, IowaWatch reported cases could last more than a year — a farmer could make a complaint in one growing season and still not hear anything by the next.
Investigate Midwest asked for data over the summer that could show how long Iowa investigations took, but the agriculture department said it does not compile the data in a way that could be analyzed. Without the data, it's difficult to know how widespread the issue is.
But, based on limited pesticide misuse statistics from neighboring states and Iowa farmers, Iowa's investigations appear to stretch on.
Other Midwestern states contacted either don’t keep data on the length of investigations or didn't provide it. However, Illinois — which, like Iowa, has miles and miles of corn and soybeans that need spraying — keeps track of how long investigations take.
Between 2018 and 2021, it took an average of about five and a half months to complete pesticide misuse investigations, according to Illinois Department of Agriculture data. One of the longest cases, which lasted more than a year, involved the spraying of dozens of people.
Faux has reported pesticide misuse to IDALS four times — each time resulting in an investigation taking up to eight months. He said the longest part of the investigation is the most important: lab results.
When IDALS suspects pesticide misuse, an investigator will take soil and plant samples from the affected farm. Those samples are transported to a lab where they are tested for traces of pesticide, according to IDALS’ website.
Farmers will take matters into their own hands and send soil samples to private labs, which are able to get results to farmers quicker, Faux said, but it’s costly.
Farmers want compensation for damages
Damage caused by pesticide drift can be covered by insurance or the pesticide applicator, although it’s not mandatory. Under Iowa law, IDALS can't require a pesticide applicator to compensate a farmer affected by drift.
But farmers — including the Iowa Farmers Union — want that to change.
“We have been asking for larger protections so that if there is an incident with an applicator, that farmers have financial backing, usually insurance, so that if there is a problem, there’s a way to get compensated for damages,” said Aaron Lehman, president of the union.
Fett hasn’t been able to receive any financial compensation for his damages. Now, he’s considering getting an attorney involved.
“Killing our stuff really hurt us financially,” Fett said. “I want to be compensated. I lost tens of thousands of dollars.”
Faux said IDALS can’t be held responsible for the lack of compensation.
“The Pesticide Bureau’s goal is to simply enforce the pesticide laws,” Faux said. “If we want the Pesticide Bureau to be doing something different, maybe we need to look at offering different laws that give them a different focus, because in a way I feel like between being understaffed and having a backlog, it’s hard to get out from underneath.”
Faux believes there needs to be a shift in the bureau’s mission — or an entirely new organization designed to support farmers.
“We don’t have an advocate,” Faux said. “We don’t have anyone to point me where I need to go for help. We need an advocate. We need someone to step up for us.”
Iowans reported 315 pesticide misuse cases to IDALS last year. Applicators used a variety of pesticides in these cases, but one has dominated the conversation on pesticide drift in the Midwest like no other: dicamba.
Though Iowa would not provide its data, the Illinois agriculture department reported dicamba was involved in 59% of pesticide misuse cases in the last four years — about 1,325 cases.
Lehman believes if IDALS tightens restrictions on dicamba, drift cases will decrease in the state.
“We wanted to have tighter restrictions on the use of dicamba before it was ever approved for widespread use in soybeans,” Lehman said. “We didn't take a stance that there shouldn't be dicamba but we just thought it needed to have a whole lot more guidelines.”
The Environmental Protection Agency approved its newest dicamba restriction in March, making it against the law to spray the herbicide on dicamba-tolerant crops after June 20.
Farmers complain of small fines
IDALS can give out fines up to $500 for pesticide drift, according to the department’s website. The department administered 77 fines in the last four years, it said.
“We need to increase the fines for violators,” Lehman, of the farmers union, said. “We've been lobbying for changes at the state level, especially, but also at the federal level.”
In Fett’s case, the helicopter operator was fined more than $500, likely because the state found it violated more than one section of the law, according to paperwork Fett shared with Investigate Midwest. IDALS did not respond to a request for comment to explain the higher fine.
The operator was fined $1,160 on July 15, but the case remains open because the operator has not responded to the state’s proposed fine. Despite this higher amount, Fett believes even bigger fines would help decrease pesticide drift.
“They need to change the fines up to an amount that will hurt the pocketbooks of these applicators,” Fett said. “Then everything will change.”
Without data from the state, it’s difficult to know if the $1,160 fine is common or an outlier.
Lehman and Fett believe that if applicators receive a hefty fine, it will discourage them from breaking pesticide laws again.
“I've been working since 2015 to try to get the state legislature to up the fines to a minimum of $5,000 for misuse and they have dragged their heels and pretty much said that's not important,” Fett said. “The higher the amount of money, the more attention is given to the person who violates the Iowa code. Then applicators, whether they be commercial or private applicators, will think twice before spraying when conditions are not right for spraying.”
Top image: A sign warning pesticide applicators to avoid drifting or accidentally spraying this land in northeast Iowa. photo by Lauren Shotwell, IowaWatch