30 Days on a Prairie Farm: Chemicals

My Generation

Day 28: A look at what we spray on our fields and why, and why it actually has a purpose.

Published on: November 28, 2012

When I have had the privilege to sit and talk with consumers who don't know horsepower from horses, there is one topic that consistently comes up: chemicals.

"Do we use them?"

"Why do we use them?"

"Why do we use so much of them?"

"Is it causing some unknown - cancer, obesity, disease, etc?"

And really, the overarching assumption seems to be that we farmers are out here simply dumping on the chemicals. Wasting excess amounts of chemicals, poisoning the land and apparently doing so because Monsanto told us to and we aren't bright enough to know any better. (That's the extreme end of the assumption, but you get the idea. And really. It exists.)

Farmers make their chemical decisions very carefully and no one applies more than they need to because...well, expensive. And we drink the water out here, too.
Farmers make their chemical decisions very carefully and no one applies more than they need to because...well, expensive. And we drink the water out here, too.

Here is what I know to be true:

"Do we use them?"

Yes. We use chemicals on our farm to control weeds and insects. Every farm, everywhere, has to deal with weeds and insects and has to control them in some way or they will hurt the crop. We use something called Integrated Pest Management, which is to say we scout for insects and treat if we find them. Farmers also rotate their crops to help control insects, because some insects like to overwinter in certain crops or in the residue of certain crops. We try to keep that from happening.

 "Why do we use them?"

Weeds have to be controlled. Otherwise, they will take over. Some weeds, like waterhemp for example, can produce 6 million seeds. If we don't control (i.e., kill) the weed early, it will go to seed and produce, potentially, 6 million more like it. That's a problem. Farmers have worked hard to keep noxious weeds - those that reproduce and spread in ridiculously quick fashion - from taking over fields. Indeed, some counties have even had "weed police," who monitored farms and made sure landowners weren't letting weeds get out of hand. Because weeds don't obey property lines. My dad bought the farm where I grew up when I was about a year old, and from what I understand, it was covered in Johnson Grass, which he spent years eliminating. Growing up, if we spotted Johnson Grass - anywhere, like even in the ditch along the road - we pulled over, Dad cut the head off, bagged them, sprayed the plant and burned the bag when we got home. To this day, I could spot Johnson Grass at 20 yards.

 "Why do we use so much of them?"

Here's the thing: we're not just out here throwing out chemicals all willy-nilly on the fields. USDA and FDA approve chemicals for use at certain rates, on certain crops, at a certain growth stage, to treat weeds at a certain height. It's all very, very specific. Rates are very small - we're talking ounces per acre. And my husband, like anyone else who wants to spray anything on their fields, has to study, take a test and secure his Pesticide Applicator's License. Let's just say the test is hard enough that it stresses him out. And he actually studies. A lot. All this to say, not just anybody can go running around and spraying chemicals.

 "Is it causing some unknown - cancer, obesity, disease, etc?"

This is a phenomenally good question. It's the fear, isn't it? That we're doing something to ourselves to cause all this cancer? I don't have a good answer for this other than I believe that if what we're spraying were causing cancer, we'd see tremendously high rates of cancer among farmers - the people who are handling concentrated products and risking exposure. And we just aren't seeing more cancer among the farm population. And I say this as someone who's recently lost her mother to cancer. I don't believe crop protection products had anything to do with it. And obesity? I think we eat too much. Period. Heart disease? Same thing. As a society, we need to learn moderation. As a person, I need to learn moderation.

But I can't blame chemicals for that.

 

 

The archives: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm

Kickoff: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm

Day 1: Working Kids

Day 2: Biotechnology

Day 3: Harvest Eats

Day 4: Church

Day 5: Biotechnology, Again

Day 6: Long Haul

Day 7: Hormones

Day 8: Weather

Day 9: Milk

Day 10: County Fairs

Day 11: Harvest

Day 12: Technology

Day 13: Show Ring

Day 14: Leave the Farm

Day 15: Dialogue

Day 16: Store Grain

Day 17: Love

Day 18: Kid Love             

Day 19: Straight Rows

Day 20: Antibiotics

Day 21: Bottle Calves

Day 22: Relationship

Day 23: Big Fun

Day 24: Dogs

Day 25: Family

Day 26: Cattle

Day 27: Sustainability

 

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