Preventing and Dealing with Pesticide Drift on Organic Farms
While pesticide drift onto fields, livestock or a homestead can be a problem for anyone, organic farmers suffer more negative consequences based upon the land stewardship requirements of organic certification.There are steps organic farmers can take to prevent drift and if the unfortunate event occurs, obtain compensation.
While laws differ from state to state, all govern the misapplication of pesticides on to non-target areas. Each state’s rules vary by strictness, fines/punishment, training of applicators, and how consistently the rules are enforced. Contact your state department of agriculture and have on hand the information you need to file a pesticide complaint. The Pesticide Action Network has a toolkit for dealing with pesticide drift http://www.panna.org/resources/case-pesticide-drift
Genetic trespass, or GMO drift is not covered by any state or federal laws and crop insurance does not cover damages caused by pesticide or genetic drift.
An ounce of prevention
A friendly, non-threatening discussion with all of your neighbors, informing them that you farm organically and that pesticide drift or fertilizer runoff could negatively affect your organic market access for 1-3 years, usually results in more care being taken by these neighbors when these organically prohibited substances are being applied. Do not disparage their type of farming, instead discuss that organic has specific rules that you need to follow, and that the application of these chemicals on your crops is not allowed.
Using the sprayer further away from the fenceline, not spraying on windy days, or maintaining/planting windbreaks are some steps they could take. If there is aerial spraying, identify your organic land on aerial photos for their custom applicators, so they know areas of extra caution. Share these aerial photos with local airports where the crop dusters are based. Providing this information can help prevent drift, and if it does occur, this organic status pre-notification makes your case for compensation stronger. There is also a free online service https://driftwatch.org where you can note your organic fields.
Electric companies, road crews, railroads and other entities could have a legal “right of way” through or adjoining your land. They are allowed to keep the area free of obstructions, but legally they do not have permission to use herbicides, although the assumption is that they can spray. Contact the municipality or company and tell them you want a written “no-spray” agreement. This is a two-party understanding, where they will cut and clear the area one time and landowner will keep it clear of unwanted vegetation. Contact the company or municipality every few years so they remind their spray crews (many times outside companies) to avoid your area. “No spray” signs are a good idea. You may be required to dig out Canada thistle or mow the ditches as part of your agreement, but you should not be asked to maintain the area better than they do.
If Drift Happens
Sprays can still drift, with some types such as dicamba, more prone to volatilization and long-distance movement. If you can smell the pesticide, you are being drifted upon. The first thing is to avoid direct contact with the pesticide, these are poisons which can result in health problems. If you or a family member has dizziness, headaches, nausea or other symptoms, you should visit the doctor immediately to both document this occurrence and development a plan to mitigate that exposure. You should take a shower, remove the clothes you were wearing during that exposure, and place them in a tight plastic bag, so they could be tested for residues. If livestock were drifted upon, watch their behavior and health closely for a couple of weeks.
If you can move and leave a car, truck or other piece of equipment with a hard-smooth surface in an area where the drift is occurring, these types of surfaces provide a good place for state regulators to take samples of what was sprayed. The second thing you should do is call your state’s pesticide enforcement bureau and ask they dispatch an investigator to take samples. Typically, they need to arrive within 48 hours to find residues, so do not delay in making your phone call. Document the time of day, the length of time, the type of equipment and operator where possible, the wind speed and direction, visual impacts (take photos) and any other relevant information to provide to the state and start the documentation you will need if you are seeking monetary compensation from the applicator. Try to intercept the applicator before they leave the field and tell them your land was drifted upon and get their contact information.
Once the state has documented that a spray incident has occurred, they may decide to fine the operator. If this applicator has numerous infractions, they could lose their applicator license. The state will also find out what material was sprayed, and they can share that information with you. This may be the only way you could obtain this information.
If the drift only affected your buffer zone, you will need to increase that area to keep a buffer between the drifted area and your organic harvested crop. Within a week of the incident, contact your certifier, so they can decide if they need to send out an organic inspector as well as how much of your crop and land will be impacted and for how long.
Seeking Monetary Compensation
Obtaining monetary compensation for your loss of organic certification of that crop will be much more difficult, to almost impossible, without the state’s objective third party confirmation of the drift incident. The state can also help determine how much of your land was impacted, and this is important information to share with your organic certifier.
Whether or not you plan to seek monetary compensation for damages, it is very important you report the incident to the state and to your certifier. If incidents are not reported, the state may not see a need to improve the enforcement of the pesticide laws. If you do plan to seek monetary damages, be prepared to spend at least a year interacting with the applicator’s insurance company. Your organic certification documentation is invaluable. You have documentation of your typical yields, the value of your crop, and what your crop rotations would be for the following three years. These records will have been verified as accurate by your certifier, an arm of the federal government. Most insurance companies would be willing to pay you the nonorganic price for the crop lost for the one year. They will need convincing to pay organic prices for crops grown on that land for three years.
You may need to obtain a wide variety of documentation, including letters from buyers stating they would have purchased the crops at the organic price and the cost of purchasing organic crops if you needed to replace what you lost to the drift to meet a contract or feed your organic livestock. The federal government maintains an organic price report for crops, vegetables and livestock products, another good item to provide to prove the value of your losses.
Unfortunately, there is no compensation for the time you have spent dealing with the drift incident, or the pain and suffering you experience due to the stress of this incident. You may also find that land, even after three years, may have different weeds and fertility challenges, compared to organic land that had not been drifted. You will not encounter compassion from the applicator, insurance agent or the state for the stress you are experiencing due to this chemical trespass, but do not let this stop you from obtaining damages and hopefully deterring this from happening again in the future.