Chert Hollow Farm sits nestled between rows of tall trees and a nearby stream in central Missouri. Eric and Joanna Reuter have been running the organic farm since 2006. That means they don’t plant genetically modified crops and can only use a few approved kinds of chemicals and fertilizers.
“We’ve traditionally raised about an acre and a half of pretty intensively managed produce, so it’s a very productive acre and a half,” Eric Reuter said. “We’re really into cropping things.”
Their neighbors grow acres of corn and soybeans and they mostly got along. That is until one July evening in 2014. Joanna Reuter was transplanting some broccoli when a sound caught her attention.
“I basically heard this loud noise,” she said. “It was coming north to south and I basically yelled what the ‘beep’ is that?”
They spotted a crop duster passing unusually close to their property. Shortly after experiencing headaches and irritation, they knew the wind had blown something chemical onto their land. Without knowing what it was, they were left in the lurch with a big asterisk on the authenticity of their organic crops.
“We were concerned about how do we properly market ourselves because we feel very strongly about openness and honesty,” Eric Reuter said. “We felt a little odd about marketing farm shares and such for the next year as a sustainable, chemical-free farm.”
They’ve opted not to sell their produce this year and hope the contaminated soil will rebound for next year. It’s a big hit for their small business.
And for the guilty crop duster? He received a warning letter. The farm next-door did not respond to my requests for an interview.
“We’re more susceptible to that kind of contamination than we thought,” Eric Reuter said. ”And that raises the stakes significantly for a farm like ours.”
As organic farms grow, so does looming drift problem
In the U.S., farmers use nearly 900 million pounds of pesticides every year to protect their crops from weeds and insects. But sometimes those chemicals drift to neighboring property, which can ruin crops on organic farms.
Although conventional farms can also get hit with unwanted pesticides, it’s the $40 billion organic industry that’s most vulnerable. As more organic farms pop up, these kinds of disputes will only be more common.
Kaci Buhl of the National Pesticide Information Center says there’s no clear picture of how common pesticide drift is for the nearly 20,000 organic farms nationwide.
“The data would get better and possible resource allocation would increase if there was more consistent reporting,” she said.
Each state’s agency responsible for handling pesticide drift investigations – typically the state Agriculture Department or the equivalent – deals with investigations differently.
Missouri Department of Agriculture spokesperson Sarah Alsegar says the department does its best but is sometimes limited by the turnaround time of lab analysis as well as gathering records from the pesticide applicators in the region.
That’s why the organic industry is pushing for national regulations that prioritize drift investigations and consider stricter penalties for negligent farms. Farmers say investigations into chemical drift can drag on for months and penalties vary.
“Once we do have a federal approach to pesticide drift I suspect we’ll be a lot more coordinated in our responses and potentially have better prevention strategies and more timely reaction to events when they do occur,” said Nate Lewis with the Organic Trade Association.
Lewis says that drift needs to remain on the forefront of policy efforts especially as organic acreage grows and farmers become more aware of pesticide drift. Currently, there is no federal policy outlining pesticide drift investigations or recourse.
Recently, organic farmer Margot McMillen was traipsing through her muddy farmland about 25 miles from Chert Hollow. At her farm, called Terra Bella Farm in central Missouri she grows all sorts of vegetables.
While scanning her crops after a recent rain, she noticed some possible pesticide damage on her grape vines.
“This curling of the leaf is real characteristic and there's a real thinness of that leaf,” she said cradling the leaf in her hand. ”To me they look like little fists (saying) ‘Help, help.’”
McMillen is all too familiar with curled up foliage. In 2014, pesticide drift took a $25,000 chunk out of her tomatoes.
This year, she says, she’s been forced to grow her plants “defensively.” Large bushes now block the wind from the road. She moved crops over a hill crest away from other farms and moved the tomatoes inside the greenhouse.
“Everybody (who) doesn't use the chemicals is running into this problem and none of us want to go to some sort of biotech tomato,” she said. “We like our real tomatoes.”
McMillen says a stricter penalty system could help improve accountability for pesticide negligence. Ultimately, she says she and other organic farmers need to plant defensively to survive.