Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Breathing In A Chemical Haze

[editor's note: This post was started in July of 2017 after a particularly difficult day on the farm.  Sometimes, I feel it is better to get away from the situation to consider carefully what is to be said - if anything.  I started work on it again this Winter when I realized it may just be that something needs to be said often enough to encourage change.  As a testament to how hard the subject can be to talk about, I had to take it up again in March.  So, here goes something.]

It's the end of July and the air is heavy and warm.  The sun is part way towards the horizon in the West as it tries to burn through a chemical haze.  The breeze doesn't want to come out to play this evening and I wouldn't blame it if it were more interested in an ice-cold lemonade while it sits on the porch.  However, I am certain that it would not opt to sit outside tonight if it could choose.

This evening had the potential to be a beautiful Summer evening.  While the day was warm, it was not oppressively so.  The sun was bright, but not blinding.  Since it was Friday, there were no additional workers on the farm.  That meant we could more easily run a couple of errands during the hottest part of the day and use the cooler hours in the evening to work in the fields.  There is something relaxing about the knowledge that you have a fair amount of work to do, but week-long stresses of working AND managing the work of others can be eased away by taking a productive walk behind a wheel hoe.

Unfortunately, it is "Spray Season" in Iowa.  Eighty-five percent of the land in this state is farmed in some fashion (30.5 million of 35.7 million acres according to USDA 2016 numbers).  Of the acres that are farmed, 23.4 million were dedicated to corn and soybeans (76.7%).  Another 2 million acres were planted to hay and alfalfa and about 170,000 were in small grains.  It would be safe to make the observation that nearly all of the corn/soybean acreage is farmed using herbicide, fungicide and pesticide applications as their most common tool.  And, everyone is frantically trying to get the pesticide and fungicide applications done in Bremer and the surrounding counties during a ten-day period.  But, this Friday was the peak.  Everyone wanted to spray and they wanted to spray NOW.

The buzz of airplane engines started  just before 7 AM and were still going at 7 PM.  The whine of high-boy spray rigs rushing down the road at their top speeds gave an unwelcome counterpoint, though I have to admit there were certainly fewer of those since aerial spray seems to be the thing to do.  If there were birds singing - and I actually doubt that they were - you couldn't hear them.  In fact, I found myself hoping that the birds and other critters we like had found good places to hide.  Unfortunately, with the human tendency to tear out every brushy area or stand of trees because it is "not productive land" I doubt there were many places they could go to find sanctuary.  In just five years, as a response to high corn and soybean prices, 97,000 acres of woodland in Iowa were cleared (from 2009 to 2013).  Three quarters of these losses are due to agricultural operations and Iowa now has 100 million trees fewer than we did in 2010.

 Agri-chemicals are to commodity crops what pharmaceuticals are to the health industry.  We all want to a take a pill or spray a chemical and make the problem go away.  The case study of bifenthrin, which was registered for use in 1985, illustrates the expansion of use for many chemicals in agriculture.  You can find similar maps and view them to your heart's (dis)content at the United States Geological Survey site.

While it is true that not every chemical shows the same trend as bifenthrin, you should take note of the state that is most often completely covered to show heavy use for a wide range of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.  Why, yes, that is our state - Iowa.  To further make the point, I suggest that you go to the survey site linked above and check out Atrazine, Trifloxystrobin, Glyphosate (Round up) and whatever else you are curious about.  If you wish to see these maps better, click on them to see a larger image.

A new hatching of dragonflies were zipping around the East fields of our farm this morning and I took pleasure in watching them go from hovering in one spot to hovering in another after a quick movement in what seemed like an impossible direction.  Then, I found myself apologizing about all of the pesticides that were certain to be added to every surface of the county over the next few days.  I muttered something about 'bad timing' and 'I hope you all survive this.'  What a strange thing to say to a creature that has ancestors that were on this earth 300 million years ago.  A dragonfly is a fantastic predator (if a bit indiscriminate) to have on our farm since it will eat any number of pests that might cause problems with our vegetables.  The adults can live for several weeks to a couple of months if a bird or other larger predator doesn't take them.  This batch was seen on our farm for two days.  Fill in the blanks.  We may work to provide habitat and a safe haven on our farm that these critters favor, but they don't see borders the same way we do. 

But, then again, airborne spray doesn't see borders like we do either.  And, let's be honest, the sheer volume of pesticides being dumped on acre after acre of land in Iowa results in coverage that is not limited to just the target crops.  We all know this, we just don't want to think about.  In fact, we are so adverse to thinking about the possibility that we are willingly poisoning our world that we aren't even doing much research to either prove or disprove this.  It's a good deal like avoiding seeing the dentist about the tooth that hurts because you are afraid that she'll say you have a cavity.  The sheer volume of spraying going on during the end of July helped to make the air heavy and difficult to breath.  A quick look to the skies reminded me of smog we had witnessed during visits to certain larger cities.  And, it didn't just look that way on our farm.  It looked and felt that way when were in Tripoli... and Sumner... and Waverly, as we ran errands during the heat of the day.

So, what does that mean for us as we consider the 200 foot rows of broccoli and onions that need a pass with the wheel hoe?  Are we supposed to go shut the windows of our 100+ year-old farmhouse and hide?  Does that mean we are supposed to stay inside for this ten to fourteen day period?  How are we supposed to do the work that we do if we shouldn't be outside?  What about all of the other people who work outdoors in the Summer months?  Is it okay that their bodies have contact with all of this stuff during spray season?  Are all of the outdoor enthusiasts supposed to stay in?  Should the bike paths, swimming pools and tire swings stay empty at this time?  And what about all of the creatures on this earth that have no 'inside' to go to?  Are we just supposed to deal with it since it is the cost of living in Iowa?

My answer depends on the moment.

On bad days, I DO want to run and hide.  It hurts too much to witness this.  It worries me every time we enter each Spray Season - and it isn't just the July season - we worry during the Spring herbicide spray season too.  I wonder if I should tell our young workers who are often high school and college age that they should go home and not work during Spray season.  We have pulled them from fields before, maybe they should just never go out during that time?  And, what about us?  What sorts of physical issues are we creating for ourselves because we chose to do the work that we do?

On better days, I get angry and I want to see change.  I want to see more meadowlarks and tiger swallowtails.  I want to see the skill and art of farming return with the use of a bigger toolbox than the one provided by application from a sprayer boom.  I want to see dragonflies darting around me as I walk behind a wheel hoe amid the broccoli and onion rows.

What do you want?

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