Protecting the Integrity of your Organic Crop
This article was first printed in the May-June 2008 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
As organic farmers, there are many aspects of production that are “out of our control” including the weather, seed quality and the possibility of damage to the organic integrity of our crops by adjoining land uses. While we cannot do anything about climatic conditions, there are some activities we could do to lessen the chance of contamination, as well as build relationships over time with nonorganic neighbors that offer a more long term protection.
Each state has their own laws governing no spray agreements with utilities and road crews. However in all regions, organic farmers can approach these entities and put together a written agreement for multiple years. The landowner must realize that the road crews have a legal mandate to keep the road sides clear of obstruction that could either block sight or prevent water from flowing through the ditches which could cause roadside flooding. Most state, county or town governments will not sign a roadside no spray agreement unless the landowner agrees to take on some responsibility for brush and noxious weed control in the right-of-way. Many government entities provide flags for the landowner to use to mark the boundaries of their land and alert the road crews as they travel the roadsides with the spray rig. Flags designate that this is the area where no sprays are allowed. If there are no flags provided, it is still a good idea to put up no spray signs at the property lines as well as at road intersections. Many times, it is not local personnel doing the roadside spraying, instead, there are hired crews from outside the area, and any “reminders” such as signs put up by the property owner would be helpful. (MOSES sells no-spray signs if you need some- see the notice on page.)
As with most agreements, having a clear delineation of responsibilities is good for both parties and lessens the risk that an unwanted spray activity would occur. A statement such as “The property owner agrees to maintain vegetation along the roadway by keeping it mowed (or brush cleared, or noxious weeds removed) so as to allow for clear field of vision by those traveling on the roadway and the unimpeded flow of water through the road ditches. The Town, (county, state) will respect the wishes of the property owner and not spray the roadsides noted on the attached map. If the property owner does not maintain the roadsides as agreed, the Town (county, state) will maintain the roadsides to protect the public health and safety.”
Not all government entities will require the property owner to mow the roadsides, but most will require that brush and noxious weeds be controlled. This agreement by the property owner needs to be maintained at all times, since if a local road patrolman sees brush or weeds, they could spray. The written agreement could also include property owner notification of a weed issue and the landowner could be given one or two weeks by the local government to take care of the problem before the road crews would spray. Each agreement can be written to fit the needs of whoever is involved. If the road crews accidentally spray, but there had been a clear written agreement and the property owner had maintained their side of the bargain, there could be a case for receiving the organic premium on the nonorganic buffer zone crop in the organic field that would then need to be removed along that roadside. Again, each state has their own rules on this type of liability, however, when there is a written agreement, the liability is more clearly spelled out and the organic farmer has a better chance of getting a payment for an accidental spray incident.
Utilities can be approached by property owners in the same fashion. Here in Wisconsin, there is a state statute (182.017 (7)(d)) which mandates no herbicides are to be used under electric transmission lines unless there is express written permission by the landowner. If the landowner maintains the brush, then the utility is to reimburse the landowner for this work. Higher voltage transmission lines moving electricity from generation facilities to substations are different from the shorter electric distribution poles that move electricity from homestead to homestead in rural areas. These distribution lines are managed either by private companies or by local rural electric cooperatives. Each of these entities has their own policies regarding no spray agreements, and it would be a good idea to contact these companies sometime this spring and find out their policies, if they have a standard no-spray agreement you could sign (many have them), or if you could develop your own.
Where I live there are many non-resident landowners who have signed no spray agreements, but have not maintained the brush and trees below the utility lines as the agreement mandates. Last year the utility company was not willing to sign a new agreement with us since they had been having problems with other folks not maintaining their land. We were eventually able to convince them that we would maintain our brush, and we signed a long term agreement. The utility companies actively maintain trees and brush around their lines, monitoring their lines yearly and clearing brush using either chainsaws or spray every couple of years. Some utilities may notify you that they are intending to spray, or they may not. Being prepared ahead of time with a clear agreement is the only way to not have the unpleasant surprise of seeing a swath of dead grass and trees through your organic field. The easement to these utility companies to come onto your land and maintain the distribution lines was part of your deed when you purchased your land, with most of these easements put on these deeds in the 1920s and 1930s.
A friendly discussion with your neighbors concerning sprays or chemical fertilizer applications along the fence line would also be helpful. Most neighbors are willing to work with you, especially if you explain that you are accessing a specialty market (organic) and that there are certain rules you must follow, including protection of your crop from a prohibited spray or fertilizer. You can explain that you have a buffer zone in place, but you would appreciate it if they would spray when the prevailing winds are light or are going away from your land. If the neighbor has a pasture, you could ask them not to spray for weeds within 30 feet of the shared fence line (and offer to cut or dig their weeds if they wish). If they are willing to sign a yearly agreement concerning this no spray area on their farm, then the organic farmer would not need a buffer zone on their side of the fence, but this agreement must be in writing, unless the neighbor’s adjoining field is certified organic!
More and more applications of herbicides are being done by custom applicators, who may not be familiar with the area and the various operators of the fields. Putting up signs near field entrances stating you have an organic farm and no sprays are allowed can be a little bit of insurance to keep a confused custom applicator from directly applying a prohibited substance to your organic field, which will cause that land to be removed from organic production for 3 years. This is especially important if you are renting land away from your home, where you cannot see activities on your land until it is too late. You can be proactive and notify the local coops and applicators of where your organic land is located by coloring in a photocopy of a plat book map, putting your name and phone number on that map, and noting that these are organic fields. These types of maps can also be given to local airports and ask them to pass them on to aerial applicators who may be crop dusting in your region.
In Iowa there were tens of thousands of aerial applications of insecticides to control soybean aphids in 2007. This year, the Iowa Organic Program is working with the State Department of Agriculture to develop both maps for “sensitive” areas (which include honeybee hives) and signs that face up to the sky to alert crop dusters that they are approaching a zone where chemical sprays are not allowed. Contact Maury Wills at the Iowa Organic Program for more information (515-281-7656).
In Wisconsin, Laura Paine with DATCP (608-224-5120) is putting together a voluntary listing of organic farmers to share with custom ground and aerial applicators in the state. All certified organic farmers should have received a short survey this spring to participate in this voluntary list. Pesticide applicators are aware that organic lands are not to have prohibited substances and some have contacted the state to find out where the organic farms are located so they can avoid them. In addition, the various underground pipeline companies have contacted the organic program within the state of Wisconsin to find out where organic farms may be located, so they can avoid them when planning their pipeline routes. While the State of MN has a mitigation plan in place for pipelines going through organic land, in Wisconsin, these mitigation plans are on a case by case basis. It is important for landowners to carefully read any pipeline agreements and if the landowner wishes an organic inspector or other trained person to be present every day there are pipeline activities on their land, this should be clearly stated in the agreement. There are a variety of protective activities done when a pipeline is being laid under organic land and if you need further information, you can contact Harriet at MOSES (888-551-4769).
Lastly, there is the issue of GMO contamination. While an organic farmer does not lose organic certification if there is GMO contamination of their crop, they may lose access to the organic market, especially for crops destined for human consumption. Organic corn and soybeans for human food are tested extensively for GMO presence and if found, are rejected. Most organic livestock feed is not GMO tested. The organic farmer can do a variety of things to lessen the risk of GMO contamination, including planting later than conventional neighbors and trying to not grow organic corn directly adjoining GMO corn (work your rotation so you are not growing corn the same year that your neighbor is). If you neighbor is growing GMO corn with the bt gene, they will need to plant some of their acreage with non bt GMO corn in order to prevent the development of insect resistance. They sign a contract with the supplier of the seed where they agree to plant a minimum of 10% of their land to non bt GMO corn as a “refuge”. The organic farmer can ask the nonorganic farmer to plant their refuge crops next to the organic land, and most neighbors are willing to do this, since they need to plant this refuge someplace.
As organic farming becomes more and more part of our rural landscape, those who use “prohibited substances” are becoming more aware of their need to respect organic land and work with organic producers. Organic farmers can be proactive and work with these various entities with agreements, signage and being part of an organic farmer registry to prevent unwanted applications and protect the organic integrity of their crops.
Harriet Behar is the MOSES Outreach Specialist. She was an organic inspector and inspector trainer for many years and has an organic bedding plant and vegetable operation with her husband in Southwest WI.Return to TOP