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Pesticide Drift Killing Crops and Making Hoosiers Sick

The first in a three-part series on the dangers of pesticide drift reports on how misplaced pest-control chemicals can encroach on people's livelihoods.

  • airplane spraying pesticide

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    An airplane applies pesticide on a field in Tifton, Georgia.

  • steve and brett

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    Photo: Sehvilla Mann

    Brett Middlesworth, right, at his farm, with Red Gold's Steve Smith. Red Gold buys Middlesworth's tomato crops.

  • red gold truck

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    Photo: Sehvilla Mann

    A truck at Red Gold's processing plant in Orestes, the eventual destination for Middlesworth's tomatoes.

This is the first in a three-part series on pesticide drift.

Brett Middlesworth looks over the land his family farms near Marion. On one side, a work crew is pouring concrete for a new grain bin. On his other side is a field where Middlesworth grows tomatoes, a crop that has been part of the family business since 1946.

“I enjoy raising tomatoes,” he says. “It’s something different. It gets us a little bit diversified.”

Middlesworth grows about 300 acres of tomatoes each year, but last summer he saw about a tenth of his yield damaged by a single instance of pesticide drift.

It happened halfway through the growing season. His neighbor was spraying a soybean field with Roundup herbicide. The wind picked up and carried the spray across the property line and onto Middlesworth’s tomatoes.

As Roundup targets broadleaf weeds, and tomatoes are broadleaf plants, the area closest to his neighbor was a total loss.

“We disked it up. They were gone. Two and a half acres of nothing, just bare ground,” he says.

Many of the plants survived, but they slowed down. So much of their fruit was still green at harvest, which overwhelmed the picking equipment.

“We have a color sorter on the machine, and it can see the difference between dirt, green, red, and when you’re trying to overload the color sorter by kicking out ninety-five percent of the green, it’s working hard,” Middlesworth says. “You try to compensate with the speed that you’re driving, but the machines aren’t meant to kick out that much.”

The incident cost Middlesworth and his buyer, Red Gold Incorporated, more than $45,000.

A Persistent Problem

Middlesworth’s experience demonstrates how chemicals meant to control bugs and weeds can become general agents of destruction if the wind carries them beyond their intended targets.

In the last three years, three-quarters of farm pesticide violations involved drift.

There are laws that task those applying pesticides with preventing them from drifting.

But the Office of the Indiana State Chemist, the agency tasked with enforcing state pesticide laws, documented 97 cases from 2010 through 2012 where applicators spraying farms violated anti-drift laws.

Most reports of harm caused by pesticides drifting onto someone’s property involve damage to plants. But in the last several years, the state has documented a dozen violations where someone said exposure to drifting pesticides made them sick.

Growers report making headway in the last few years with voluntary efforts aimed at preventing drift damage, but produce industry leaders say they are worried the approval of new genetically modified crops could undo that progress.

Pesticide program manager Dave Scott says the law requires applicators to follow drift prevention rules on a product’s label.

Some cases are cut-and-dried. Often, pesticide labels prohibit the spraying of the chemical above or below a certain wind speed. State Chemist investigators can use wind speed data – often from a nearby airport – to determine whether an applicator followed the rules.

But Scott admits the label system needs work.

“Right now there is such a hodgepodge of drift restrictions, or allowances, or no restrictions at all, on products, for no apparent reason, it makes it difficult to talk about things uniformly,” he says.

Consider the label for Roundup Custom, a blend the Environmental Protection Agency’s approved for farm use nationwide. It runs more than 130 pages long. For most aerial sprayers, the following instructions apply:

“Drift potential is lowest between wind speeds of 2 to 10 miles per hour. However, many factors, including droplet size and equipment type determine drift potential at any given speed. Avoid application below 2 miles per hour due to variable wind direction and high inversion potential.”

If you live in California or Arkansas, though, keep reading. Crop dusters in those states must follow stricter rules, including an outright ban on spraying in winds over 10 miles an hour, than those in other states. Within California, Fresno County has yet another set of rules.

Scott says applicators can get lost in the thicket of variables. When it comes to certain chemicals, they can end up causing pesticide drift even while staying within the bounds of the label instructions because the law is too weak or too general to prevent it.

Scott is involved in an EPA working group that has proposed standardizing the label language on drift. Their proposals have inched toward approval several times, but have ultimately been blocked for what Scott calls political reasons.

Not Every Case Reported

Middlesworth says his neighbor took responsibility for the incident last summer, and arranged to compensate him right away.

“It was just one of them deals where, you know, he tried to pick a time frame to spray his crop, and, you know – it’s his crop, he’s entitled to spray it whenever he wants,” he says. “You just hope that when the guy’s spraying it, he might keep it off of your side.”

Even though his crop incurred major damage from drift, Middlesworth never reported the case to the state.

Nobody knows how many growers resolve such incidents privately, and that makes it difficult to sound out the drift problem. As mentioned, three-quarters of farm pesticide violations in the last three years involved drift. If all farmers reported their cases, that number could run even higher.

 Max McCombs and Jackson Caldwell contributed to this report. 

Sehvilla Mann

Sehvilla Mann has been reporting for WFIU since summer 2012, when she began working toward her master's degree in journalism at Indiana University. Her work has won three awards from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. A native of Urbana, Illinois, she is not sure she understands hills but enjoys looking at the ones around Bloomington.

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