Why Do Farmers Apply Pesticides?

Why Do Farmers Apply Pesticides?

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.

an example form required for the purchase of restricted use chemicals

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


  1. March 25, 2015 / 3:46 pm

    THANK YOU! You are the first “farm” blogger I’ve encountered who has fairly and accurately summarized the “what about organics?” question in the context of pesticide usage in agriculture. It’s so refreshing to read a post like this that acknowledges the complexity and diversity of pest management strategies on farm of all types with such an open-minded and respectful approach. Bravo!
    Rob Wallbridge recently posted…End the Food Wars: Let’s Fight for Understanding InsteadMy Profile

  2. Lorie Farrell
    March 25, 2015 / 3:59 pm

    Nailed it Jenny, very well said!

  3. March 26, 2015 / 9:55 am

    Very well written! I am going to share this like crazy some spraying season.
    Dana recently posted…Hide & SeekMy Profile

  4. Lisa
    March 27, 2015 / 10:38 am

    I’m just wondering where the info for “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.” comes from? Does this mean organic farmers have to till/burn/hand pick as many weeds as they can and then they can use a pesticide? I thought organic farmers never used pesticides??

    • March 27, 2015 / 11:32 am

      Hi Lisa,

      This information came from an organic grower who sits on the Organic Advisory Task Force in her state. This statement is indeed consistent with the EPA standards for Organic. Here’s the text: “> Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials. Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.”

      It is a common misnomer that organic production does 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) as well as if they’ve taken other steps to rid the crop of pests or weeds. 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: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&SID=9874504b6f1025eb0e6b67cadf9d3b40&rgn=div6&view=text&node=7:

    • March 30, 2015 / 7:57 pm

      Hi Lisa,
      I’m the one Jenny referred to in her reply. 🙂 My husband and I are certified organic farmers in Minnesota, growing corn, soybeans, and wheat.

      Like Rob said, the organic standards are overseen by the National Organic Program, and the USDA. The organic standards spell out everything from writing your organic systems plan to manure application timing to pesticide use to storage after harvest to marketing…and everything in between.

      This publication is one of my favorites to refer to for quick answers on organic farming: http://1.usa.gov/1OSgLGG

      Organic farmers do not use pesticides for weed control. We are prohibited from using any of the products on the approved list as a herbicide. As Rob mentioned, there have been some experimental products out there, but they are not cost effective nor do they work.

      Corn and soybeans do not have pesticides available, since the required crop rotation takes care of most of those issues, making them pointless. Wheat may require treatment for blight, but in our experience that has been rare…again, due to our crop rotation, and the weather patterns. If we do need to use a product on the wheat, we must first prove that it is needed, and show our records of what we have done to take care of the issue. We then must ask permission, they will review what we have already done, and either approve the request or deny it. If approved, we need to follow the label and the rates that have been approved for that particular issue. Just like conventional farmers cannot use their crop protection products willy-nilly, neither can organic farmers.

      I hope this answers your questions!

  5. March 27, 2015 / 10:56 pm

    I’m a certified organic farmer, I provide advisory services to organic farmers, and I’ve trained and worked as an organic certification inspector. Jenny has done a great job summarizing how pesticides are sometimes used on organic farms.
    I’d like to clarify that it is the National Organic Program that is in charge of the National List of substances approved or prohibited for use in organic agriculture, and the approval process happens via the National Organic Standards Board – they have an established review process before recommending that a substance be added or deleted from the National List. (Of course, any pesticide considered for organic approval would need to be reviewed and approved by the EPA for general use beforehand.) As Jenny mentioned, the options are limited: due to availability and cost, organically-approved pesticides are usually limited to use in high-value and pest-prone crops like fruits and vegetables.
    I’m not aware of any organically-approved herbicides that have proven effective or economical enough to use commercially, though research is ongoing, but to address your question in another context, I’ll use an example from my own farm: striped cucumber beetles are a major threat to my squash crops: I use crop rotation, cover crops, habitat for beneficial insects, transplants instead of direct seeding, “trap” crops, variety selection, and a lot on investment in soil health to minimize their impact. Weather plays a huge role in insect population growth, and in the severe drought of 2012, the beetle population in certain areas of my farm overcame all these strategies and ate some plants off right down to the soil. I used one of the lowest-impact organically-approved insecticides available (a product called diatomaceous earth) to control the beetles in those areas and prevent them from continuing to multiply and potentially destroy my entire crop. It didn’t kill all the bugs, but thankfully it slowed them down enough to halt their advance!
    So it’s not really a matter of “getting all you can and then using a pesticide”; it’s implementing a series of short- and long-term strategies to minimize pest issues, and resorting to an approved pesticide when the pest activity/crop damage escalates past the “tipping point.” Organic certification requires this approach and the limited pesticide options available to organic growers makes it very important, but it’s also increasingly used on conventional farms, too (if you’re interested in going beyond the basic explanation I’ve provided here, look up “integrated pest management” – IPM for short!).
    Hope this explanation helps!
    Rob Wallbridge recently posted…New MacDonald, Old Divisions?My Profile

  6. Kaaren
    April 2, 2015 / 10:02 am

    Yay!!!! Finally somebody said it!!! this is the best!!! As a farmers wife, I see the anger in my husband’s eyes when he reads/sees the negative news coverage regarding chemicals being applied to crops. And most of the time the people reporting it HAVE NO IDEA what they are talking about! I am sharing this on my Facebook page and not only to my friends, but it will be a public post.

  7. April 30, 2015 / 4:28 pm

    Your article is well written. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Would like to have permission to post on my website.

  8. May 28, 2015 / 3:57 am

    I liked this article. It’s important to use special equipment when using chemicals ofcourse to avoid troubles and major problems for farmers. Thanks for sharing this important information!

  9. Lucas Faircloth
    September 23, 2016 / 9:35 pm

    Hello, what are your thoughts on pesticides and the epidemic of Colony Collapse Disorder where bees are colonies of bees are being wiped out at a rate of 30% a year? Do you or any of the people on the comment section wish to state weather pesticides are contributing to this epidemic or do you believe that it is an isolated indecent? How important do believe bees are to the pollination of your crops?

    • September 27, 2016 / 11:50 am

      Hi Lucas,
      Bees are absolutely important to the pollination of our sunflowers! In fact, we have bee colonies on our farm throughout the summer in order to help pollinate our sunflower fields. Bees play a huge and important part on the farm and ensuring their colonies remain fruitful and healthy are a huge concern of farmers. In our personal experience, we’ve seen our bee colonies on our farm thriving and producing lots of honey from our sunflowers throughout the years with no change on our end as to what we are applying on our fields. While our experience is not a scientific study, it doesn’t seem to point to the fact that pesticides have an effect on our bee colonies.

      From what I’ve read on the subject as well as had discussions with scientists and other farmers on the issue, it seems that there is no definitive answer as to why Colony Collapse Disorder happened. Many activists groups have tried to summarize findings blaming the issue solely on pesticides like neonics, but the larger scientific community has yet to point a finger at one thing. I found this article to be extremely thorough on the issue: https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/03/23/usda-study-concludes-neonics-not-driving-bee-deaths-as-white-house-set-to-announce-bee-revival-plan/