TRIPOLI -- 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.
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.
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 in Northeast 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.
A Senate bill didn’t make it to the floor. 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.
Linda Wells, the Midwest director of organizing for the Pesticide Action Network, said she was glad to hear about the faster turnaround times.
When the Fauxes moved to Tripoli in 2004 for Tammy Faux’s job at Wartburg College, they put in a big garden. But it soon evolved into a Community Supported Agriculture venture that has grown to more than 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.
Rob Faux, the farm’s only full-time worker, was out in the field on the evening of July 27, 2012, when a plane spraying pesticides on a neighboring field caught his attention. “It flew directly overhead and, right after it flew over my head, I felt droplets land on me,” he said.
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 investigates pesticide-related incidents or accidents.
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.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.
Test results 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. Also, Rob Faux said, he and Tammy could begin moving forward.
Finding a remedy
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 over-spraying to pay for losses or damages because there is no provision for that in the Iowa Code.
Cases also can be referred to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for review and enforcement actions.
Paluch, the pesticide bureau chief, said educating pesticide applicators and responding to incidents of misuse is a challenge because the products used change quickly. She added that one key to addressing pesticide misapplication is to have frequent communication between neighbors about pesticide use and areas of concern.
Faux’s case, reported on July 30, 2012, 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.
A lawsuit Faux filed against the pilot, the aerial spraying company out of Texas, the farmers coop that consulted the spraying company and the farmer who hired the spraying was settled out of court in early 2015. Phone calls and emails from IowaWatch to the aerial spraying company, coop and farmer were not returned.
Faux said he has received calls from local farmers and coops since the case settled. “We’d never gotten calls like that before and, frankly, that’s really what I wanted,” he said.
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.”
This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news Website that collaborates with Iowa news organ