It has been some time since I have last peeled back the curtain on one of these articles to see what lies beneath. This one seems to have all the hallmarks of one that is worth diving into.
So let us wait no longer.
Herbicide drift has been a major problem last year damaging millions of acres of crops in the U.S.
An organic farmer in Missouri has seen firsthand how destructive herbicide drift can be as it destroys his crops and threatens his livelihood and farm.
Mike Brabo and his wife Carol own Vesterbrook Farm in Clarksville, Missouri, about an hour north of St. Louis near the Mississippi River. The farm has been in Carol’s family for nearly a century. The couple and their two children have worked the farm since 2008 after Mike survived thyroid cancer.
At that time Mike gained an appreciation for organic foods but found it difficult to afford them. “It’s expensive to buy organic fruits and vegetables at Whole Foods,” he said.
Mike and Carol decided to grow their own. It wasn’t difficult to convert the farm to organic since no chemicals had been used on the land.
“There had been nothing grown on the farm but grass for 15 years,” Mike said.
Here, they have a photograph of the smiling, happy family. It’s a nice touch.
Sell Crops to 150-Member CSA
Over the years, the Brabos have grown their organic farm. A lot of vegetables can be grown on 24 acres, and the Brabos have planted more than 60 including lettuce, spinach, beets, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, peppers, squash and tomatoes, among others. Some vegetables are grown in four high tunnel greenhouses. They also planted an orchard with apple, peach, plum and cherry trees and fruit bushes such as raspberries. They also grow herbs such as sage, parsley and cilantro.
Vesterbrook Farm uses organic practices but is not certified through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Instead, Mike chose Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) as their certifier.
“Their standards meet or exceed the USDA’s,” he said. “CNG has a much greater emphasis on sustainability with planting areas that bring in wildlife and beneficial insects.”
The Brabos have seen growing success with their organic farm and CSA with sales increasing 10 percent per year.
I omitted a small part of the original text, not seeing it as necessary. But you get the pretty little picture. Things were going well, and life was good and bountiful.
Then came the menace.
Herbicides Damaged Crops, Loss of $300,000
That is until this year. In June, a conventional farmer neighbor sprayed his soybean field with herbicides. Wind blew the herbicides over the Brabos’ land.
This happened despite Mike having signs that say “Organic Farm, No Spray” signs and registering his farm with DriftWatch, a communication tool that enables farmers and pesticide applicators to work together to protect specialty crops using mapping programs.
The damage from the herbicide drift was total. “We found damage across our farm, which is 500 yards wide, including on the far north side of the property,” Mike said.
Crops damaged included peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, basil; fruit trees were also damaged. “Everything on the farm, even ornamental trees, was damaged,” Mike said.
The herbicides also killed half of the farm’s bees, an estimated loss of $12,000. Mike estimates the total loss at $300,000.
Tests revealed that the herbicides responsible for the damage were glufosinate, clethodim and metolachlor.
Their Certified Naturally Grown certification was suspended, and the Brabos must essentially start over to remove the herbicide contamination from their farm. It will take three years at an estimated cost of $1.6 million to remediate the damage and regain CNG certification. According to Mike, they will have to plant cover crops and replenish the soil with beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi.
First off, some herbicide research (since I have never heard of the 3 listed).
Though glufosinate looks to be naturally occurring by way of some bacteriums, companies (such as Bayer) appear to have synthesized it with ammonium for use in crops genetically engineered for coupled usage with the herbicide.
As for the specifics (as described by Glufosinate-Ammonium manufacturer Bayer):
The primary mode of action of Glufosinate-ammonium is the inhibition of the enzyme glutamine synthetase. This enzyme catalyzes the synthesis of glutamine from glutamate and ammonia and plays a central role in plant nitrogen metabolism
This one appears to be mostly used to keep annual and perennial grasses in check, primarily in broadleaf crops. Being a systemic herbicide, it works by moving through the structure of the plant. Though the exact mechanism is still a mystery to me.
Not for lack of digging, either.
This is an organic compound that is also used as a selective herbicide. Like Clethodim, it is a selective herbicide in that its also primarily used to control grasses.
The latter 2 herbicides appear to be fairly benign, at least in their potential impact in this instance. Being that they are selective herbicides, their target organisms are fairly niche. In this case, mainly annual and perennial grass species. Not to mention that they have a fairly short half-life cycle in terms of residual activity in the soil.
The obvious culprit would seem to be the Glufosinate. Being a broad spectrum herbicide (like Glyphosate), it takes out everything. And being that it is a combination herbicide (to be used alongside glufosinate engineered crops!), the picture looks really bad. Logic seems to dictate that if it kills where it is supposed to, it will likely also kill where it shouldn’t be either.
But let us dig a little deeper.
“Worst Case Scenario is We Lose the Farm”
Mike could grow vegetables and sell them as conventional but he refuses for fear that a customer would become sick because of the herbicide contamination.
“As a cancer survivor I’m not going to be complicit in putting something in the food supply that could make someone sick,” he said.
Keyword there. Could.
Millions (me included) are purchasing vegetables that have been grown in the very same way. No one has yet been able to link any health issues to such vegetables. Not to mention that most of this issue can literally be washed away by simply washing fruits and vegetables before consuming them.
That should be a given. It’s not just scary chemicals that can hide in fresh produce. Do you know how many people exit public washrooms without washing their hands?
Consider that next time you are thumbing through pretty much any consumer product in any store, anywhere.
For now, the Brabos are out of business for three years. “We aren’t sure what we are going to do,” Mike said. “The worst case scenario is we lose the family farm.”
The Brabos are working with attorneys to reach a settlement with their neighbor’s insurance company.
“We just want to be rightly compensated to grow healthy food for ourselves and repairing the soil and ecosystem so we can grow food for the St. Louis community,” Mike said.
Taking into account both the situation as described and the chemicals involved, I find myself picturing a giant dead zone in and around this little plot of land. A place where not even a blade of grass was spared the burning death of the chemical herbicide. I would think that , though (not finding any photographs of the damage).
I don’t doubt that the farm may have sustained some damage due to herbicide drift. A particularly problematic set of events when it comes to an organic farm (depending on the residual half-life of the various herbicides, anyway). However, I do have a couple of criticisms.
One is how they handled informing the neighboring farms. It’s all well and good to have big yellow DO NOT SPRAY signs around the perimeter of your property line. However, that only helps if they are seen. One would ASSUME they would be. But a safer bet would be to talk to your neighbors and community and give a heads up.
When it comes to awarding damages from insurance, that one is also questionable to me. If the sprays were applied in what could be deemed questionable conditions (such as during high winds), then yes. Though good luck proving it.
And also on the subject of damages, is the produce itself. Though the veggies are poisoned (as defined by the farmers and others of such a persuasion), they are perfectly good (and salable!) by conventional commercial standards. Even if the family does not want to sell them on principle, I don’t accept that as a good reason.
It’s not contaminated by petrochemicals or radioactivity. It’s got a small amount of herbicide.
If the farm were to go after the insurance company to make up for lost revenue in having to sell the produce as conventionally grown (as opposed to the more labor-intensive and profitable organic), I could see that. But wasting the produce was not necessary.
To close, this story was not what I suspected it was, for once (fortunately). It wouldn’t be the first time that I looked into one of these farmer as a victim articles, only to find questionable actions and narratives beneath (Monsanto suing over GMO crop drift, anyone?).
While I do have some criticism for the Brabos family, they do seem to be the victims of an unfortunate situation. And as such, I wish them all the best. One certainly shouldn’t lose their farm over holding to their personal principals.
Someone set up a crowdfunding campaign in benefit of the Farm. Do whatever you may with this link.