What you think about pesticides depends on your farm literacy

A worker in an orchard

A worker in an orchard on a family farm in Eastern Washington during the 2017 harvest (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut) 

In January, Knute Berger and Matt M. McKnight took the time to visit some of our farms in Whatcom County and then explained in Crosscut why bridging the urban-rural divide is so important for our state and communities. After all, as they mentioned, our failures to understand one another can blossom into hot political issues. What happens in urban areas affects farming and rural communities — and vice versa. For instance, a crisis in farming can quickly disrupt the food chain supplying city dwellers.

In February, the issue of pesticide use by farmers arose and provided a compelling example of what happens when the bridge between rural and urban mindsets fails.

A bill was introduced into the Legislature by well-intended and mostly urban legislators. It proposed to solve a “problem” with pesticide application by requiring four days’ notice before a farmer could apply necessary crop-protection materials. Farmers opposed the measure which was reported in Crosscut. That February article, in the view of farmers, added to the bill sponsors’ misperceptions about farmers and their interest in protecting workers, consumers and neighbors.

Farmers are very concerned about protecting workers and all others who may be impacted by use of these invaluable materials. Since 95 percent of Washington farms are family owned and operated, those workers include themselves and their families. Farmers had three main concerns with the pesticide legislation as introduced:

  1. There are already stringent federal and state laws protecting workers, consumers, schools and neighbors, and applicators breaking these laws face stiff penalties.
  2. There is no substantiated problem to solve.
  3. The solution to the alleged problem would have made the use of crop protection materials impractical if not impossible, leading to the loss of family farms across the state and acceleration of imported foods.

Current pesticide laws are stringent and enforced. Drift of these materials is illegal and serious fines can be imposed if drift occurs. Applicators are required to keep detailed records, including weather conditions at the time of application, and these records can be accessed by regulators to ensure compliance. Notification to workers of application is also required.

In the legislative hearings, no substantiated problem was presented. Washington state maintains a database of reports of pesticide exposure, as required by law, and it reveals a substantial portion, if not the majority of complaints, are related to home and urban use rather than farm use. Unlike most other exposures, those originating on a farm can lead to enforcement and penalties.

The bill as introduced was ill-conceived not just because it was a solution in search of a problem, but because the consequences would have been more harmful than any possible good. Application of organic and conventional crop-protection materials is very sensitive to weather conditions to avoid drift. It is also very sensitive to crop conditions. Farmers don’t use expensive materials unless they are needed to protect their crop. This means farmers have to make decisions quickly to apply when the crop most needs it and when weather conditions allow. To require four days’ notice would mean that crops would be lost or much more material would have to be applied in anticipation of the need rather than based on actual need. No doubt, crops would be lost and farming in Washington would be made much more difficult if not impossible for some.

That’s not a good thing for consumers, as most prefer locally produced food. Already, we are seeing a very rapid increase in imported food. Mexican berry imports have grown by 500 percent in 10 years, according to the Wall Street Journal. And the USDA reports that in 1980 we grew all our avocados in the United States, but now about 80 percent come from other countries. The FDA reports that imported foods are five times more likely to have pesticide residue above limits than domestic food. Keeping food production local to our state is important, and we believe strongly supported by our urban neighbors.

We are grateful that the voice of farmers was heard and the pesticide bill, as passed, does not add new requirements but establishes a study group. We are confident that this group will find that, as farmers have said, current laws are protective and there is no “problem” to solve.

The primary concern of farmers about the proposed legislation is that farmers were not consulted. If the sponsors had taken the time to talk to a few farmers, these simple facts would have been understood. Farmers also would have had the opportunity to ask these urban legislators why they are trying to solve non-problems on the farms when urban areas have more of a pesticide issue than farms. A state study, Washington State Pesticide Monitoring Program 1997 Surface Water Sampling Report, showed serious pesticide problems in urban streams in Kirkland and Olympia. The report noted that the average number of pesticides per sample were among the highest in the state and that “pesticide use in urban areas was three times greater than in agricultural areas.”

We hope urban pesticide use has improved since 1997, but the proposed bill and media reports call to mind “the pot calling the kettle black.”

Knute Berger’s article gently and effectively pointed out that farmers need to learn from city dwellers and those in the “food desert” need to learn from farmers. We’re grateful he acknowledged the growing effort of farmers, including Save Family Farming, to better inform the urban populations who hold the political power in this state. Berger noted: “Save Family Farming is reaching out to let us know they are experiencing challenges in their part of the food chain. It would be sensible for us city folk to up our ag-literacy before that chain becomes another crisis.” Well said.

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What you think about pesticides depends on your farm literacy