Whether through a flyover mishap or spray blowing from neighboring field on a windy day, misplaced pesticides can cause a lot of damage. Rob Faux, representative of Pesticide Action Network and organic farmer in northeast Iowa, presented “When Pesticide Drift Happens to You” as a recent webinar hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Genuine Faux Farms includes pastured chickens and 15 acres of organic vegetables in Tripol, Iowa. He sells to local markets, through seed contracts and has sold through farmers markets, CSA shares and wholesale to restaurants and a retirement village.

Back in 2012, his farm was finally coming into its own with the promise of a bountiful harvest and a steady market for its goods. Faux felt pleased with how far his farm had come until “it” happened – the pesticide incident that changed everything.

On July 27 around 7 p.m., a plane spraying pesticide meant for a neighboring soybean field flew over Faux’s farm with its spray nozzles still on. It sprayed Faux’s poultry field, production field and a high tunnel with pesticides. His hives of bees were near the sprayed zone.

“It was a Friday night, and I couldn’t get ahold of anyone all weekend,” Faux said. He had to stew for two days over what happened and also try to mitigate the effects of the misplaced spray.

“There are a lot of things we don’t think of when there’s a spray accident,” Faux said. “We had just cleaned out containers for harvest. We had bees and equipment sitting out in the spray zone. These are things you don’t think about – that if there’s drift, other things are coated with that spray and you have a responsibility for cleaning those things up.

“We didn’t think about it until it happened to us. There are more things you have to do after a drift incident than you might think.”

Food safety is a big factor. “Many sprays used on field crops aren’t rated for the crops we are often giving to people to eat as fresh food,” Faux said. “Or there’s a setback period until they’re safe for consumption. You have to be very concerned that anything hit is not safe. You may be liable if they get sick.”

Worker safety represents another important issue. Workers may be within the spray zone or exposed to contaminated items within the zone.

“Many of us with small scale farms employ others,” Faux said. “It’s our responsibility to get these people out of the spray zone if we notice there’s spraying and potential for spraying.”

Sensitive crops may die from drift, as can pollinators and beneficial insects. Exposed animals on the farm may be sickened.

Catching visual evidence of drift damage may be as subtle as seeing yellow spots or other damage symptoms on a wide range of plants.

“It can be hard to see where the drift came from but you can see the damage to your vegetable crops,” Faux said.

Drift can be sneaky in that vapor pesticide can get trapped under a warm inversion layer of air and spread out. This typically happens in the evening or on warmer days when warm air is closer to the ground and the vapor travels upward but not outward. Some products like dicamba or 2,4-D are more prone to volatilization and drift.

“If you notice that someone is going to be setting up to spray or you’re lucky to be next to someone who’s told you they’re going to spray, check the weather conditions,” Faux said. “Try to flag down the sprayer and talk as civilly as you can. We’re not out here to make people angrier but we want them to work with us so it’s not a problem. Because our farm is surrounded by row crops, we’re always recording when they’re spraying.

“If there is a spray going on and there’s drift, try to contact the farmer. Often the applicator isn’t the farmer. It’s often contracted to a co-op who contracts to someone else.”

It’s also helpful to roll down high tunnel walls, bring in workers from the fields, close up animals in the barn if possible and close up the house.

“Recording what’s going on is very important,” Faux said. “If you have good records, it’s easier to deal with uncompensated losses.”

He also recommended contacting local law enforcement, pesticide or environmental authorities, your organic certifier, insurance company and a healthcare provider, as necessary.

When working with third-party enforcement agencies, Faux said that farmers should give factual accounts, maintain documentation and be civil.

Farmers may be asked to take test samples, which should be labeled with location, date, time and plant identification, along with the spray used, if that’s possible.

When talking with the spraying farm, ask for the composition of the application, mix ratios, application rates, GPS track of spray, proof of sensitive crop, droplet size, applicating company and boom heights and other ground application data.

“We were able to get the GPS track as to when the nozzles were on,” Faux said. “There’s clear evidence that they crossed over to us and to the field to the north. When the nozzles are turned on doesn’t always correlate to where the spray lands.”

Faux had to destroy some of his crops as the errant spray bore a restricted entry interval that would expire long after his crops were ready to harvest. This kind of information is on the material safety data sheet (MSDS), which the farm applying the spray should make available to you.

One of the challenges Faux faced was providing goods to his CSA customers who naturally expected their shares. Faux looked to other small farms to acquire replacement products to fill the shares. Keeping track of these extra purchases helped him seek reimbursement for that expense.

Faux also had to move his poultry to unaffected areas because of setback restrictions on his tainted pasture. In general, livestock should be moved off of sprayed pasture as soon as possible and moved back only after the setback period is completed. All the feeders and waterers should be cleaned. Farmers should also carefully watch and record notes about the animals’ health.

“You need to do things to show you’re trying to mitigate your losses, like cleaning things and doing things to continue to be a successful farm,” Faux said.

Affected farmers should ask the spraying farmer for the contact of their liability insurance representative and be prepared to seek legal representation. But also be prepared to wait. It took Faux two and a half years to receive compensation for his losses and expenses.

Faux said the experience was extremely traumatic. “It’s been 11 years and when we hear a plane, we cringe and respond badly to that.”

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant