The first hints of trouble began in early spring. That’s when e-mails began circulating from farmers around western Washington that something very bad was happening to some of their crops. By June, peas, peppers, beans and tomato starts in the greenhouses and fields at Alm Hill Gardens, a 70-acre community farm in Everson, near Bellingham, were withering and dying. The farm says it lost $250,000 in produce. Another Whatcome farmer told the Bellingham Herald he lost $40,000 in salad greens and potatoes in two months.
What was happening, according to Clayton Burrows, whose Growing Washington non-profit runs Alm Hill Gardens, was that somehow a powerful herbicide, Clopyralid, and its even more powerful chemical cousin, Aminopyralid, had tainted the farm’s compost. Dow Agrosciences, a Dow Chemical Co. unit that makes the herbicides, boasts they last longer and are more potent than most other weed killers.
Burrows was stunned since Alm Hill, like our farm, raises its crops organically, which means it uses no chemical fertilizers or herbicides. But it does use compost made from manure sold by a local dairy. Burrows says it is likely that hay sprayed with Clopyralid and Aminopyralid was being sold to brokers, who sold it to truckers, who sold it to horse farms and dairies like the one who supplied it to Alm Hill. The farm composted it and spread it on its plants. At least six other Whatcom farms and several local gardeners have told Burrows they are having similar compost problems.
You can read about the disaster Clopyralid and Aminopyralid are causing in Whatcom County in a story I just posted on the online news site, Crosscut.com .
The herbicides first showed up in compost near Spokane. In 2001, Craig Cogger, a Washington State University soil scientist, tracked them from commercial compost back to eastern Washington hay fields. The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) banned the use of Clopyralid on lawns and turf after six commercial composters, including Cedar Grove Composting in Maple Valley, sued Dow in state court in Illinois. Cristina Sanchez, their attorney, told us in a telephone interview from Dallas that Clopyralid’s unusually long staying power “is a product defect” that Dow knew could ruin compost. Dow denies that.
Its not clear why WSDA didn’t extend its 2002 ban to the herbicide’s use on hay. “There’s been a historical problem with Clopyralid in compost and manure,” says WSDA’s spokesman, Jason Kelly. But Kelly says that while WSDA investigators found traces of Clopyralid and Aminopyralid in compost and crop samples at Alm Hill, where they have been testing since June, the state has taken no action.
“The department takes this very seriously,” said Kelly. “We’re still trying to nail down which chemicals are to blame.”
That could take several more weeks, he said, and meanwhile, Kelly said farmers who suspect their crops might have been damaged by the herbicides should stop taking them to market. “It is illegal to market crops that have been impacted by an herbicide that has not been approved for that crop,” Kelly said.
That’s a big help. But here on Persephone Farm we’ve been aware of Clopyralid and Aminopyralid for quite a while. Back in the early spring, after the warning e-mails started circulating, Rebecca and Louisa began isolating suspect manure-based compost from our most susceptable crops–legumes and nightshades. We substituted compost we make that doesn’t use manure in its place. Rebecca also ran tests of our manure-based compost on pea starts in the greenhouse.
We didn’t see any problems–until last month.
That’s when Louisa spotted some dahlias we had composted with the suspect stuff that were withering. The flowers, which usually sport robust blooms, were spikey and stunted. Here’s Louisa holding one of the dahlias that got compost (on the left) and another that did not (on the right.) It’s not hard to tell the difference.
Then a pea cover crop we had spread with compost began withering. We had also spread compost on some bean plants that began to wither as well. Then we saw Burrows news about Alm Hill Gardens and learned more about the problems in Whatcom County.
As you might suspect, we’ve talked a lot about this. The contaminated compost could end up costing us thousands of dollars in lost crops. We’re not sure yet if Clopyralid and Aminopyralid are to blame, but the signs point that way.
This is one of those situations that ends up with people pointing fingers everywhere and no one taking the blame. Tracking a shipment of hay contaminated with Clopyralid or Aminopyralid through the various hands as it moves hundreds of miles from a hayfield in eastern Washington to a vegetable or fruit farm on west side of the state is just about impossible. Dow Agrosciences says when it first heard about compost problems back in 2002 it rewrote its Clopyralid label to say don’t spray this stuff on crops that might be composted. It also told farmers using Aminopyralid, which is about four times as powerful as Clopyralid, not to use it on crops destined for compost. That’s enough, a company spokesman says.
“From our perspective, when we look at the amount of Aminopyralid sold and the problems from it, we feel our stewardship has been effective,” Bob Masters, one of Dow’s rangeland scientists, explained when we called the company for answers.
All well and good. That might get Dow and the hay farmers off the hook in court, but farmers raise hay mainly to feed animals. Quite often the trucker who buys it from a broker and delivers it to dairies and horse farms hasn’t seen the herbicide label and doesn’t have a clue what is on it. In turn, when the dairies and horse farm get rid of their manure they don’t know the provenance of the hay their animals ate. And nobody–least of all the farmer at the end of this conveyer belt–has the means, time or knowledge to test for an herbicide that is lethal down to parts-per-billion.
So who is to blame when the tomatoes start dying?
Well, everyone–and no one.
We haven’t been asked yet, but here’s what we think. Instead of wasting a lot of time and money trying to trace tainted hay/manure/compost in Whatcom County–and maybe other locations as well–WSDA needs to start at the head of the chain and quickly ban the spraying of Clopyralid and Aminopyralid on hay. It’s pretty clear there’s no other way to keep a check on these potent herbicides.
That’s going to cost Dow money and it will probably make some hay farmers’ unhappy too. But last time around they got their way–Dow and Ag groups representing big hay and wheat growers fought additional restrictions on Clopyralid in 2002. Look at the grief that has caused. There are plenty of alternative herbicides to fight weeds. They probably don’t last as long as Clopyralid and Aminopyralid but, as we can see, that’s both a curse and a blessing. There are no alternatives for a farmer when his tomatoes and peppers start dying.
Of course, we’ve got a horse in this race. We wish WSDA well in its quest up there in Whatcom County, but we also wish it had dug in its heels back when researchers first figured out the problem. As Craig Cogger, the Washington State U. researcher who first traced the link between the herbicides and crop dieoffs, told us, “Even though the hay growers were aware of what was happening I worried there might be problems down the road.”
Well, it looks like the end of the road for Alm Hill Gardens, and maybe a lot more small farmers, and its time for WSDA to stop spinning its wheels.