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What can you do when your neighbor's herbicide burns down your organic crops?

At Growing Home's downstate training farm, they're finding out that it's not a whole lot.

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At first, when Stephanie Douglass saw the orange spots covering plants and trees all over the ten-acre organic farm she manages, she thought it might be some sort of fungus or bacterial infection. The spotting on the leaves was indiscriminate, attacking everything from tomatoes to peppers to cucumbers to basil to sunchokes to spinach. Within two weeks the tissue on some of most heavily affected plants necrotized and developed holes, giving their leaves the texture of Swiss cheese. Douglass figured at least 85 percent of the crops were affected.

"If this is a fungus or bacteria," she told herself, "then we are ground zero for something that can spread in one-and-a-half days and jump crop families. That's very bad."

Douglass is the manager of the Les Brown Memorial Farm, in downstate Marseilles, a little under an hour and a half southwest of the two urban farms her employer operates in Englewood and Back of the Yards. Set on a decommissioned weather station, the plot has been farmed by Growing Home with the blessing of the federal government since 2002, under the condition that the organization serve the homeless in some way, which it does by offering job training and work experience to its employees, or "production assistants," many of whom have been homeless or incarcerated. The farm operates an on-site farm stand and a CSA program for around 100 customers, and also sells produce at the Green City and Logan Square farmers' markets. Running along lonely North 30th Road, it's surrounded on all sides by fields that rotate genetically modified soybeans and corn. This season it's soybeans as far as the eye can see.

Douglass and her assistant took to the Internet to investigate what had assailed their crops, but not finding anything natural that looked like what they were seeing, they began to suspect pesticide. They found plenty of photos of plants destroyed by chemical herbicides that looked a lot like what they were seeing in the fields.

And that made sense given what they'd observed earlier in their neighbors' fields. Douglass says the previous Monday—Memorial Day—she noticed someone with a mobile pesticide applicator spraying in the fields to the north and west of the property. That Tuesday she was in the city, but her assistant says she saw someone in the field to the south spraying with a much larger rig. That's not unusual, unless it's a windy day. And it was windy.

The day after Douglass discovered the damage, she filed a pesticide misuse complaint with the Illinois Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Environmental Programs, who would send out an inspector to determine whether there had been any violations of the Illinois Pesticide Act, in particular, the "use of a pesticide inconsistent with the labeling of the pesticide," in the vernacular of the BEP. Douglass also called the Midwest Organic Services Association, the certifying organization that makes sure Growing Home and around 1,500 other farms and produce handlers are operating within the guidelines set by the USDA's National Organic Program. Naturally, those include strict prohibitions on the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

This particular call had the potential to lead to serious consequences for the farm. Beginning last year, the federal government began to require certifying agencies to test for pesticide residue among 5 percent of the operations they certify. MOSA would send an inspector to Marseilles to collect samples of damaged plants, which would be sent to a lab in Minnesota for testing. If the results showed the presence of any of more than 185 prohibited chemicals—from acephate to vinclozolin—the farm could be held in violation, prohibited from marketing its produce as organic and forced back into the three-year probationary transition period all farms must pass in order to be certified organic.

Normally certifying agencies identify the farms to be tested, but occasionally a farm will report the problem voluntarily, and Douglass is committed to the system. "In my opinion, according to their standards, if any form of herbicide or pesticide appeared in the fields, we are in violation," she says. "I'm kind of a stickler, and I believe in what organic means. And so I was telling them from the beginning, 'Let me know. So I can let my customers know.'"

In the meantime, Douglass says, MOSA told her she should proceed with her work. She could transplant the damaged seedlings in the hoop houses to the fields and carry on as normal. And she could continue to sell her produce as organic. But Douglass wanted her customers to know something had happened. In her weekly CSA newsletter she informed them of the leaf spotting and of her efforts to get to the bottom of it, and reported that officials had told her the produce was safe to eat. "The silver lining is," she wrote, "whoa are you guys getting a real, firsthand look at what it's like to run a small organic farm in Big Ag country!"

The state inspector arrived a week later. Douglass says he voiced skepticism that the farm had suffered any pesticide spray drift: most of the incidents he was called out for turn out to be petty disputes between neighbors. "He said, 'We're probably not going to need to do any tests.' And then as soon as he saw it, he starts walking to his car. I'm like, 'What are you doing?' He's like, 'I'm going to get my testing kit.'" The inspector took plant samples and left, and Douglass continued to wait.

Stephanie Douglass at Growing Home's Wood Street Urban Farm in Englewood - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • Stephanie Douglass at Growing Home's Wood Street Urban Farm in Englewood

One of the ways pesticide drift, or what some people call "chemical trespass," occurs is when applicators spray crops when the wind is too high and the chemicals are blown onto neighboring properties—or onto people. For small farmers, winemakers, beekeepers, and other small producers it can lead to ruin. But how pervasive the problem is depends on whom you ask.

Tom Spaulding is the executive director of the Angelic Organics Learning Center, in Caledonia, near Rockford. He says he frequently has to run out into neighboring fields to stop pesticide applicators when the wind is too high. Usually when it's the property owner doing the spraying, he'll do the neighborly thing and wait until the wind dies down. But Spaulding has had less friendly confrontations with contract applicators who spray in spite of his protests. He could report them to the state department of agriculture, but believes the consequences for the sprayers are so minimal that he doesn't bother.

Warren Goetsch, chief of the state's Bureau of Environmental Programs, says his department licenses some 34,000 individuals to use pesticides, 17,000 of them private applicators. Goetsch tries to be evenhanded when discussing conflicts between conventional and organic farmers. "An individual has just as much right to use a product as that neighbor has a right to not have that product affect that property," he says. "On average we receive between 100 to 125 formal misuse complaints per year. Is 100 to 125 alleged incidents excessive compared to 17,000 applicators? I guess if you're the one that had the adverse impact it's too many." About half of those complaints, he says, lead to warning letters or fines.

Back in 2009, Peoria state senator David Koehler thought the problem was serious enough to hold a hearing. Responding to a couple cases in which children had been sprayed, he convened a group of lawmakers, conventional and organic farmers, chemical industry representatives, academics, and bureaucrats. Wes King of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance testified at the hearing on behalf of organic farmers and other small producers. He says the reps for the conventional farmers and chemical industries conceded that there were problems and agreed to find ways to communicate better. "The conclusion was we don't need new laws," he says. "We can handle this voluntarily."

A few months later Koehler announced Illinois's participation in DriftWatch, an online registry where farmers, beekeepers, and vintners can plot their farms on a GIS map. The idea is that applicators will also register on DriftWatch and consult the map for any "sensitive targets" in the areas they would be spraying, and then proceed with an abundance of caution.

The problem is, by the end of 2013 only 79 applicators had signed up to receive automatic notifications when a sensitive area has been registered. That's compared to 481 registered beekeepers and fruit and vegetable growers (including Growing Home) covering some 9,689 acres. Goetsch adds that an applicator doesn't need to be registered to use the site.

"One drift in a vineyard can mean years of economic loss," King says. "One drift on an organic farm—especially if it's certified—could mean the end of their certification. It could mean the end of some of the monetary premiums they get from selling organic products. Apiaries are extremely sensitive to pesticide drifts. The people who are sensitive to drift incidences registered pretty much en masse on DriftWatch. But the industry did not."

King says mass participation by applicators in the DriftWatch program is needed now more than ever. With the next generation of pesticide-resistant genetically engineered crops on the cusp of EPA approval, there's going to be a significant increase in the use of chemicals like 2,4-D, a highly toxic and highly volatile herbicide that was an ingredient in Agent Orange. "This comes at a time when consumers and communities want to see more local food production," says King. "There's this worry that in the very near future we're going to have an increase in chemicals drifting onto these farms. One drift of 2,4-D on a vegetable farm and you're gonna zap a large part of their crop."

In Illinois, producers far outnumber applicators on the voluntary registry at driftwatch.org. The yellow dots represent registered beekeepers.
  • In Illinois, producers far outnumber applicators on the voluntary registry at driftwatch.org. The yellow dots represent registered beekeepers.

There's a shed on Growing Home's Marseilles farm that stores its pest-control supplies. It holds a few containers of liquid fish and kelp, blood meal, and soap. There are always a few cats running around for rodent control. "Most materials for pest control are our hands," says Douglass. On the day I visited the farm in mid-June, a little over two weeks after the crops were hit, she and a few interns were busy plucking tiny beetles off the leaves of the potato plants and squishing them between their fingers.

We were waiting for the inspector from MOSA to arrive. He had canceled a few previous appointments, and in the intervening weeks the afflicted plants had slowly begun to recover. New plant growth was unaffected by the spotting, but you could still see the damage on plants that were now stunted, weakened, and made more vulnerable to pests and disease. You could see the shredded leaves on hardy weeds like milk thistle and lamb's-quarter, and the peach and plum trees near the southwestern corner of the farm near the road looked like they had been blasted by a flamethrower. Douglass was certain they'd sell no peaches this year.

When the inspector arrived, he had a Styrofoam cooler and a bunch of Ziploc bags. Douglass gave him a tour of the damage, and he decided to collect cucumber leaves, which were large and still showing a lot of damage, and also sunchoke plants, which are very hardy. While he snipped the leaves from the vines, Douglass snapped photos for him to document the chain of possession. After he'd collected about five pounds, he headed off to Morris for some dry ice and a FedEx station so he could ship the plants to the lab in Minnesota.

Over the next few weeks Douglass made repeated calls to the department of agriculture and MOSA, asking for the test results. On August 3 she got some good news. MOSA's test hadn't detected any banned substances in either the sunchokes or the cucumber leaves. She was told she could continue to market her produce as organic, and that the farm wasn't in any danger of losing its organic certification.

But then, three weeks later, on August 25, she received a letter from the Bureau of Environmental Programs stating that its inspection had determined that a violation of the Illinois Pesticide Act had occurred, and that a "Warning Letter" had been issued to Kale Duffy of Hintzsche Fertilizer in nearby Minooka. The letter thanked Douglass for her concern for the Illinois environment, but failed to say what chemicals had been used.

The state forwarded me a copy of the case's Pesticide Misuse Complaint Enforcement Evaluation Form, which contains a list of "use and violation criteria," each of which is assigned a point value. The form stated that the lab had detected the presence of two chemicals in its analysis of plant matter from the farm—dimethenamid and saflufenacil—both ingredients used in the herbicide Optill PRO, manufactured by the BASF Corporation "for giving soybean growers preplant and preemergence management of tough-to-control weeds," as the company boilerplate reads. "It provides fast, broad-spectrum burndown and enhanced residual control."

The report says that the applicator—Duffy—sprayed the pesticide on a day when winds were blowing between 11.5 and 13.8 miles per hour, with gusts of up to 17 miles per hour. This is contrary to the instructions given on the pesticide's label, which say to apply it only when the wind is blowing ten miles per hour or less, and blowing away from sensitive areas.

The points assigned to Duffy amounted to 13—which meant he was only issued a warning letter. If he'd been assigned a few more points—if, say, the drift had caused a human to be sick for more than three days, or if Duffy had had any previous violations over the past three years, or if Growing Home had reported property damage worth more than $1,000—he might have been fined anywhere from $750 to $10,000. Hintzsche is a large agricultural services company with branches all over northern central Illinois. Calls to Duffy and Ben Willis, the manager of the Minooka location, were not returned, nor was a call to company headquarters in Maple Park.

King believes that there needs to be new and tighter regulations to control spray drift and to protect smaller producers. "The types of enforcements that can be brought against someone for drifting are extremely weak, so there really isn't any incentive within the industry to be more careful." At the very least, King would require all applicators to register on Driftwatch and use drift retardants that minimize the risk if you're spraying near a sensitive target. And, he says, the enforcement aspects need to be strengthened.

"Part of the reason the companies involved have no incentive to do something is that generally what happens is the people who are applicators aren't in professional high-level positions. They're low-paying jobs. The actual applicator—not the company—ends up getting the warning letter. Companies are able to not take any responsibility."

Douglass didn't quantify the property damage after the pesticide burned her crops. But by early September she was able to assess some long-term damage. "We had a massive grasshopper infestation. Plants that were already weakened had a lot of issues. We lost a pretty significant portion of our basil—we were only able to give basil twice this year, which is crazy." Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants bounced back strong but came on very late; the peppers were only just starting to turn color. "The peach trees did not even flower, which has never happened," she says. "Apples were definitely weakened."

Around the same time I called MOSA inspections manager Jenny Cruse. Cruse wouldn't speak directly about Growing Home's case, but she did outline some of the new procedures MOSA was following to comply with the federal government's pesticide testing requirements. She said she's heard of a couple cases every year of pesticide drift causing a farm to lose organic certification—but usually it's the farmer that requests withdrawal. "I do think it's a big problem," she says. "The organic farmer takes on a lot of risk. If they do get drifted on, it doesn't seem like there's a lot of effective recourse for them. It does seem like a bum deal for the organic farmer, because it's their responsibility to make sure that they don't get drifted on, and that's kind of a tricky thing."

The day after I spoke to Cruse, Douglass says she received a call from MOSA certification specialist Michael Crotser, who informed her that the agency was probably going to place the farm in violation after all, based not on the negative lab tests—the lab that performed them didn't test for dimethenamid or saflufenacil anyway—but on the photos of plant damage Douglass had sent at the beginning of the summer. The farm, or particular fields on the farm, could be placed back in transition. This was frustrating for Douglass, who'd been saying that all along but had been repeatedly reassured by MOSA for much of the season. "The guy I talked to was very specific," she says. "He actually said, 'Nope, you're not in violation. Carry on as normal.' They said that from the very beginning—in May."

The farm's future was made even more uncertain by a decision Growing Home's board of directors made earlier in the summer—unrelated to the spray drift issue—to centralize its operations in the city and stop farming on the rural site after this season. "Urban agriculture is supersexy right now," Douglass says ruefully.

Right now the organization is trying to find an organic farmer who wants to take over the Marseilles farm. If that happens, Growing Home has the option to buy the property from the government and sell it to that farmer. But how attractive ten acres of freshly uncertified farmland will be to an organic farmer is anybody's guess. MOSA has promised Douglass it'll decide whether or not any portion of Growing Home's Marseilles farm is in violation by the end of the year.

"I'm like, whatever, if we're in violation we'll have to deal with it," says Douglass. "But it would be interesting trying to quantify the damage, because if we are put into transition, this Hintzsche Fertilizer company should be held financially responsible for what that does." But she paused. "I don't know if that's a battle that Growing Home is gonna choose to fight."

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