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Organic, conventional farmers deal with pesticide conflict

By: NIKKI WORK, Greeley Tribune
May 14, 2016 Updated: May 14, 2016 at 3:12 pm
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ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS - In this April 29, 2016 photo, Matt Varoz walks through his green house, which represents his entire organic crop in March at his farm near Eaton, Colo. Varoz was forced to get rid of his entire crop after a crop duster accidentally sprayed pesticides on his farm last year. (Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

GREELEY — The jagged hole in the roof of the chicken coop at Ginger's Farm shows the sky, but there are no birds to see it. The coop has been empty for months, nearly as long as the beehive surrounded by tiny winged corpses. The plot that used to grow everything from raspberries to onions to cabbage is now just mud and weeds.

A year ago, things looked different on the small organic farm in Eaton, just outside Severance. Ginger's Farm grew two acres of produce, raised dozens of pigs, chickens, bees and more. One day in August 2015, farm owner Matt Varoz was working the farm when he believes it was sprayed with pesticides. He saw a crop dusting plane flying overhead, then felt liquid misting down over everything.

He couldn't sell the crops, because they were marketed as all-natural, a practice that, among other things, promises no pesticides were used. He sold most of his animals because he was concerned about reproductive problems. The pesticides killed his bees. He's cut back on his farm work because of health problems he attributes to the incident. Now he said he is looking into legal action, the Greeley Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/1s86saR).

"It's getting less heartbreaking, but it was very hard to come out this winter," Varoz said. "All the joys were taken away."

The number of organic and all-natural farms like Varoz's is on the rise in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of organic farms increased 12 percent to 21,000 between 2014 and 2015. And yet, with urban areas growing and increasing demand for farmland, conventional and organic producers and their vastly different practices may clash. Varoz's farm can show the devastating consequences when they do.

Harry Strohauer, who farms both conventional and organic produce in LaSalle, has organic plots bordered by his own conventional farmland. He protects his own with spraying practices to ensure both sides of the field grow to their best ability. But he tries to protect his neighbors' as well.

It's not just an issue of organic and conventional stewardship, he said, but rather about being a good neighbor all around. Even conventional practices can clash. If a farmer sprays an herbicide on corn, he said, that chemical can kill a potato or an onion crop.

Dave Eckhardt, president of the Colorado Corn Growers Association, said organic farms can indeed be ruined by a wayward sprayer, but conventional farmers have that risk if neighboring organic farms don't use good pest and disease control. Though Eckhardt himself hasn't encountered a situation like this, he knows the best way to guarantee your neighbors know your needs is to tell them.

"I think everybody who's left in ag understands that while we're not in this together necessarily, we're in this together," Eckhardt said.

The issue has come up before the Colorado Corn Growers Association, and Eckhardt said the association encourages neighboring farmers to be open to interaction, partnership and cooperation.

"Communicate. Respect one another's business and ability," Eckhardt said. "The majority of producers dealing with one another don't want to interfere with one another's operation."

That can be hard for farmers who typically don't want anyone interfering with their business practices and try to stay out of others', he said.

Nathan Weathers, a farmer from Yuma County, said most of the time, the farmers in his area don't communicate about what they're doing day-to-day. They just try to be as careful as possible because they know if their pesticides can drift onto a neighbor's property, it could just as easily happen the other way around.

Occasionally, Weathers will make sure to tell his neighbors about certain specialty crops, like the popcorn he plants. Unlike his corn, popcorn can't be sprayed with popular pesticide Roundup. In cases like this, he calls neighboring farmers to let them know though the popcorn looks similar to corn, it is different.

For the most part, this good neighbor philosophy works, he said. Weathers rarely hears about issues, but he said usually each year, one pivot in his area will get hit with pesticide drift. But when these issues come up, farmers are usually understanding because they know all it would take is a shift in the wind for them to be behind the mistake.

Mistakes do happen. That's why there's a system in place to train farmers on how to best handle and apply pesticides and minimize these risks. The Colorado Pesticide Applicators Act regulates all levels of pesticide application, from commercial to governmental to private farms. The act details licensure, directions for pesticide use, registration for those sensitive to pesticides and enforcement for pesticide-related offenses.

Several years ago, oversight of the private applicators switched from the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. It was a shift Weathers said has directly made his farm a safer place and himself a safer applicator.

Before, applicant certification was largely done via a handbook and a mail-in test. Now, there are online resources and classes to attend on a variety of topics, including how to handle and store pesticides, which product is best for which situation and best practices for record-keeping. There were classes offered before, but they largely felt punitive, not informative, Weathers said. Most of the time, the farmers in the classes were scared to ask questions because they felt like it was a trap, rather than a lesson, he said.

"It's much easier when you're going to a class when you know you're there to learn instead of when you walk into a meeting afraid of what they're going to do to you," he said.

Weather said his farm has never had an issue with pesticide drift or misuse, a streak he thinks has continued in part because of the state's regulation.

Strohauer trusts in the state's system for pesticides as well. He said the only method of spraying that ever really concerns him is aerial spraying, but between state regulation and the trust he has for his long-term sprayer, he breathes easy when the crop duster heads out for a run.

That kind of comfort is far from Varoz's mind. This year, he's anxious something may happen whenever he's out feeding his few remaining pigs — including the farm's mascot, a large sow named Ginger — or when he's tending the vegetables in the greenhouse. He hopes he'll be able to start ramping the farm back up to higher production eventually, but the future depends on his health. Less than a year since the event, he's trying to do a little more bit by bit.

A new hive of bees is set to arrive at the farm in the middle of May. He and his wife, Megan, are raising baby chicks indoors for eggs, something Varoz calls his own little therapy.

Eventually, Varoz wants to get back into doing educational visits to schools and events, like he used to do to spread the message of sustainability and all-natural farming. Now, he wants to continue to talk about those messages, but stress the status quo of doing things isn't the only way. He wants to encourage agriculture to think of different ways of doing things, like applying pesticides by helicopter instead of plane, because it's more precise.

"We're really hoping," he said, "that with education and talking with the neighbors and the applicator that we can avoid it (happening again) along with other people not having to go through the same thing."

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