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Farms' problems with a herbicide may be back

Some farms in Whatcom County are finding their crops failing, and researchers have found traces of a herbicide mainly used in Eastern Washington. A WSU researcher said he feared a repeat of problems that occurred a decade ago when the state decided against banning usage of a powerful herbicide.

A herbicide used in Eastern Washington may have made into compost applied on organic farms.

A herbicide used in Eastern Washington may have made into compost applied on organic farms. Dean Forbes/Crosscut Flickr group. All rights reserved.

As state agriculture officials scramble to pin down the source of a mysterious crop die-off that has cost farmers in Whatcom County hundreds of thousands of dollars so far this year, a Washington State University researcher who traced a similar crop kill a decade ago said he had worried that the problem would re-emerge.

The researcher found the earlier problem stemmed from a powerful and long-lasting herbicide that made its way into compost, and he said he had feared the state's failure to ban spraying the herbicide on hay and wheat might lead to a new round of trouble.

The herbicide, Clopyralid, and its newer and more powerful chemical cousin, Aminopyralid, are used by hay and grain farmers, primarily on the eastern side of Washington, to keep down thistles and other broadleaf weeds. Washington State Agriculture Department (WSDA) investigators recently found both herbicides in compost on several Whatcom County farms where the latest crop kills have occurred.

Garry Hamlin, a spokesman for Dow Agrosciences, the Dow Chemical Co. subsidiary that makes Clopyralid and Aminopyralid, told Crosscut the company is aware of its herbicides are showing up in Whatcom County.

"We've been working with local regulators to get to the bottom of this," Hamlin said. "There's been a breakdown in the stewardship of our products and we need to find out how that happened and shut it down."

While the latest Whatcom County problem has mainly been confined to organic farms, compost made from animal manure is widely used on organic and non-organic farms and gardens all over. Tracking a long-lasting herbicide through a chain of hands — from hay farmers, to truckers, dairies, and horse farms — before it finally ends up as compost on a vegetable or fruit farm could pose a daunting problem for regulatory officials.

Both Clopyralid and Aminopyralid are classified as safe for human exposure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. WSDA allows the herbicides to be sprayed on wheat and other grains.

"In the testing (of Clopyralid and Aminopyralid) WSDA has conducted to date in this investigation, residue levels we are finding are far below what is allowed to come into the marketplace," WSDA spokesman Jason Kelly said in a statement to Crosscut. "The issue here is inadvertent damage to plants, not impact on human health."

Clayton Burrows, a Whatcom farmer who operates Alm Hill Gardens, a 70-acre organic farm in Everson, Washington, said he asked WSDA for help in June after the farm lost $250,000 in produce this spring. Alm Hill usually harvests some 3,000 pounds of tomatoes each year from each of its several greenhouses, Burrows told Crosscut. This year, the farm's July tomato crop, he said, was just 20 pounds, although the season has just started and there will certainly be much more to pick, with some areas of the farm unaffected by the problem.

Burrows said he was surprised when WSDA investigators found Clopyralid and Aminopyralid in compost the farm was spreading on its beans, tomatoes, peas, raspberries and other crops. "We're an organic farm and we don't use herbicides," he said.

Since then, Burrows said, he has heard from a half-dozen other farms and a number of home gardeners in Whatcom County who are having similar problems. Whatcom grower Kirk Hayes told the Bellingham Herald last week that he lost $40,000 in organic potatoes and salad crops in two months after he spread tainted compost on seven-and-a-half acres of his farm.

Dow voluntarily pulled Aminopyralid off the market in Britain in 2008 after farmers there reported the failures of crops exposed to compost that had been made from silage sprayed with liquid manure that contained the herbicide. Dow reintroduced Aminopyralid in the UK this year, Hamlin said.

Clopyralid has also shown up in manure in California. Kjell Kallman, general manager of Grab & Grow, a Santa Rosa, Calif., commercial composter, said his company now tests every load of manure if receives from local ranchers because of herbicide concerns. "Occasionally, we find traces of Clopyralid," Kallman said. The company rejects any manure containing the herbicide, he said.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Aug 6, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow. Competent investigative journalism right here in little ol' Crosscut. Who would of thunk it? I'm impressed.

When the history of the decline of the American empire is finally written, a couple of central themes may be the following: 1) Violence targeted against a limited objective never works out as predicted. One unleashed, violence by its nature expands and spreads. 2) Short cuts and expediencies are never as cheap in the long run as they appear to be in the short term. This is a society that is, on every level, now paying the price for the false sense of wealth generated by mindless and excessive exploitation.

The sad irony in this particular tale is that the ultimate victim of the agribusiness toxic chain is the small organic farmer who ends up holding the bag of contaminated horse poop. It ain't fair. In light of the massive use of persistent herbicides and pesticides and genetically engineered seed, one has to wonder whether organic agriculture really has a serious chance. On the moon maybe?

woofer

Posted Fri, Aug 6, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Well written. Both sides presented. Outstanding journalism. And not a McGinn or a tunnel in sight. MORE!

Ross Kane
Warm Beach/Stanwood

Ross

Posted Fri, Aug 6, 9:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Great investigative journalism!
After watching my roses wither nine years ago when I was using Cedar Grove compost contaminated with the chlorine-containing herbicide Clopyralid that Dow didn't think would be a problem (a number of composting companies were driven to bankruptcy, Cedar Grove barely survived), and after all the lawsuits were done, I was naive enough to think that all was (or would be) well in the compost world.
How silly of me.
Now we see that Dow's been at it again with a vengeance, marketing Clopyralid as a lawn herbicide in 2002, but hay and grain farmers were permitted to keep spraying it on their crops. In 2007, Dow Agrosciences introduced Aminopyralid, which the Indianapolis company says is up to four times as powerful as Clopyralid.
And now Dow lamely says "We've been working with local regulators to get to the bottom of this," Hamlin said. "There's been a breakdown in the stewardship of our products and we need to find out how that happened and shut it down."

Duh!

The way to fix the "breakdown" is to get it off the market, not whine about "breakdowns in ...stewardship.

Chlorine is a toxic waste not found in nature. A by-product of steel making, it's always been a challenge to get rid of, and Dow has been spectacular in creative marketing of it. Rather than paying for toxic wast disposal Dow constantly finds and creates new chlorine-containing products that can be marketed for a profit. Unfortunately for all of us except perhaps Dow stockholders, that's "the American Way".

Posted Wed, Aug 11, 7:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Great story!

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