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Speaking out about pesticide drift – Stories from the National Conference for Women in Sustainable Agriculture

At last week’s 4th National Conference for Women in Sustainable Agriculture in Des Moines, Iowa, I attended a workshop called “Pesticide Drift: Measuring the Presence and Impact on Rural Communities.” I’m very interested in this topic, and in fact had worked at the White Earth Indian Reservation on a drift catching study last summer before starting at Main Street Project.

Left to right: Linda Wells and Emily Marquez, Pesticide Action Network; Bonnie Wirtz, farmer

Left to right: Linda Wells and Emily Marquez, Pesticide Action Network; Bonnie Wirtz, farmer

Conference presenters included Linda Wells from the Pesticide Action Network (whom I had worked with at White Earth), Laura Krose, owner of Abbe Hills Farm in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, and Bonnie Wirtz, a farmer in Melrose, Minn. Bonnie shared the powerful story about her family’s experience with being directly aerated by pesticides.

The house became foggy and Bonnie was not able to breathe. She covered her young child’s face and together with her husband, headed for the emergency room, all the while she was continuing to have breathing problems. The hospital called the company who was spraying and found out the chemical their family had breathed was chlorpyrifos – commercially known as Lorsban, an insecticide toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms, mammals, birds, and bees.

The doctors in this rural community did not know what protocol to use on the farmer and began making arrangements to airlift her to another hospital. Her husband was full of worry while taking care of their child. She thought to herself, “I’m gonna die.” Luckily, doctors were able to stabilize her and monitor her overnight. The next morning the nurse practitioner came into the room outraged, “This happens more than I would like to see in my hospital. I see families come in every summer with this issue. I have never seen anything quite like yours, but this needs to stop.”

Pesticide drift is an issue that farm families and others face every season. Bonnie began to speak out. She did research on what could happen to her eight-month-old child and found that the chemical chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxin. She became involved in a mother’s group and started educating them about pesticides, pesticide drift and what can happen to children. She also started drift catching (collecting air samples for pesticide analysis) with the Pesticide Action Network..

The second season farming on their rented land, Bonnie and her family saw a lot of wildlife death. “We saw a lot of birds and squirrels die after they were crop dusted.” She had the Minnesota Department of Agriculture test their fields and found that the applicator was in violation. The drift levels were too high and the company in charge of application was fined. Her story has helped her become a vocal advocate. She has been part of radio interviews and encourages people to drift catch and to tell their stories. “Getting this stuff out in the media,” as she explained it.

To learn more about pesticide drift and how farmers and others are taking action, visit www.panna.org.