Much like you take steps in your garden to keep your plants free from pests and disease, farmers utilize what we call crop protection products (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) to help control the thousands of weed species, harmful insects, and plant diseases that can afflict crops. Whether organic or conventional, farmers face these challenges each growing season.
The need to utilize pesticides can vary by climate, environment, and geographical location so each farm poses different needs in the spectrum of crop protection products. In order to understand how and why certain crop protection products are used, it is important to understand the science behind how and why they work. Pesticides work in many different ways by affecting their target, whether it be a weed, pest, or disease.
These are called “modes of action” and it is typically through these modes of actions that pesticides are classified. The importance of knowing the mode of action needed will allow you to utilize crop protection products successfully. I’ve written before about each specific chemical we utilize on the farm and specific reasonings for why we do so. The important takeaway is that farmers only utilize the modes of action they need for any given situation. Doing otherwise is not only costly to the pocketbook, it can also be evironmentally detrimental and farmers recognize that. Often time’s farmers will consult a professional called an agronomist to make recommendations or suggestions.
What would happen if we did away with crop protection products? And what about organics?
Many believe that venturing away from pesticides in our food is the cure all for producing perceived safer food. It is true that utilizing pesticides can help increase yield and improve overall plant health, but farmers do not pesticides at the price of the environment or the safety of the general public like many outlets want to suggest. Farmers utilize pesticides to help control the thousands of weed species, harmful insects, and plant diseases that can afflict crops, period.
Without the use of pesticides, overall food production would decline and many of the fruits and vegetables we enjoy in the store would be in short supply. Because pesticides can help with continuous supply, this help keeps our food at a stable price in the grocery store. Pesticides don’t only affect food crops though; production of certain fibers and oils would also be affected, as crops like cotton are highly susceptible to pests and disease.
Going to an organic system of production, however, doesn’t solve the problem of dealing with pests and weeds. What conventional farmers spend on pesticides they spray on their fields, many organic growers spend that on human labor and other inputs. They utilize techniques like harrowing and cultivating, flame weeding, and actually physically hoeing weeds out of fields, which typically aren’t used in a conventional method of production from a number of different reasons.
The issues surrounding chemical usage in organic production is extremely complex. Yes, it is true that some crops can use organic pesticides, but not all. All crops in organic production require proof that alternative steps have been taken to curb pests or disease and did not work before being approved for use of a pesticide. Much like a conventional farmer can also utilize, organic producers utilize cover crops to suppress weeds or establish a good crop rotation to build soil health. For any farmer, healthy plant roots equal healthier plants which in turn are better able to ward off pests and for conventional farmers, it can minimize the usage of certain pesticides.
** Clarification: It is a common misnomer that organic production does not/can not use pesticides. Organic producers can use pesticides, there is an approved list of them put out by the EPA. Of course, this varies on the crop, as many crops do not have any approved for organic pesticides available. Organic farmers also have to prove they’ve taken alternate steps to rid the crop of pests or weeds as I mentioned above. If you’re curious to read through the list of allowed and approved pesticides and other compounds for organic production, you can find the full text here. **
What are “restricted use” pesticides and what does it mean?
There are two classifications of pesticides: general use and restricted use. There are many different reasons as to why a chemical could be classified under restricted use. Some of these reasoning could be due to ground water concerns, toxicity to aquatic organisms, or human inhalation hazard. Concerns with any restricted use chemicals can be looked up on the EPA Chemical Lookup or by reviewing a chemical’s Material Safety Data Sheet.
Restricted use pesticides make up about one quarter of total pesticides used. The classification means that they may be applied only by or under the direct supervision of trained and certified applicators. This means that a license is required to purchase and apply the product. Applicators become certified through programs administered by the federal government, individual states, or by company policies that vary from state to state.
All certified applicators are required to keep records of application of restricted use pesticides. This record keeping includes the product name and registration number, amount applied, location, crop on which it was applied, and date of all restricted use chemicals applied.
What special equipment or precautions do farmers take when they use chemicals?
We are a third generation farm and want to continue striving to preserve the land quality for our future generations. This wouldn’t be possible if we abused the resources allowed to us. If farmers were to overuse things such as pesticides, this could hurt their land. Toxic or depleted soil doesn’t grow crops. We rely on the health and safety of our land in order to continue farming each year.
We don’t have a jug labeled “pesticides” that goes on anything and everything. The truth about pesticides we use on the farm is that we use specific chemicals labeled for very specific uses and at very specific amounts. The products we use for crop protection varies depending on crop, soil, crop rotation, current condition of the crop, pests, and moisture. The choices we make regarding what to spray are careful, calculated, and measured out. It is not something we do haphazardly or thoughtlessly like many websites will suggest.
We take pesticide use and handling on our farm extremely seriously. Every single product we use on the farm has a label that gives us extensive information about how to use the chemical. This label is not simply a suggested use guide; it is indeed a federal and civil regulation under FIFRA (Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act) through the EPA. When applying pesticides, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are used as per pesticide label requirements such as long sleeves/pants, gloves, safety glasses, and if risk of inhalation, a disposable respirator.
Employee training is extremely important when it comes to using pesticides. Workers are protected under the Worker Protection Standard as well as the Hazard Communication Standard, which requires employers to disclose any toxic or hazardous substances in workplaces. This also requires any employee unrestricted access to Material Safety Data Sheets for any chemicals utilized as well as appropriate training to understand potential safety risks. There are also field re-entry intervals put in place as per pesticide label requirements.
As people first, farmers are just as concerned about the food we eat and produce as you are. It is something we take in to consideration with each choice we make on the farm. In addition, we want consumers to know what we are doing and why we make the choices we do on our farm. We don’t want our methods to be somehow secretive.
But the truth is that there is no one size fits all in agriculture. So we spend each year trying to balance utilizing technologies both old and new. For us, crop protection products are just one technology that we utilize in order to grow the healthiest crops we can which in turn allows us to produce more.
For more in depth information on this subject, visit this feature in the Food Journal and Food, Nutrition, & Science