For Joel Meyer, pesticide drift complaints get personal — real personal. They threaten his livelihood and that of his fellow aerial applicators. As president of the Iowa Aerial Applicators Association (IAAA), he preaches his concerns to his fellow applicators and does what he can to prevent drift. What he can't do is change the laws of physics — not that he would want to try. He knows they work for him, even if they present their own challenges when it comes to potential drift.
"Our aircraft are flying through the air at 100 to 160 mph," explained Meyer. "That's why they are so efficient at putting products into crops. The air movement forces the pesticides down into the crop. The flip side is that with that much force, we have to minimize overspray that can occur."
Anyone familiar with any application equipment recognizes that drift is a fact of life. The key is to minimize the drift in the first place and to minimize the impact of that drift. Meyer and the IAAA do what they can on both counts. The association has held clinics the past four years to help members identify their optimum swath and the potential for drift.
"By knowing our optimum swath, we understand what happens on a day with a light wind or even maximum label wind speeds," said Meyer. "At a 10 to 12 mph wind, there is going to be some movement. If there are sensitive crops in our area, we can use smoke to tell us how fast the wind is moving and whether we can spray or need to come back another day."
Registry Improves Awareness
Meyer and his fellow IAAA members are fortunate. It is highly likely they have those sensitive areas identified, thanks to the Iowa Sensitive Crops Registry. Established mid season 2008, the registry now lists 993 growers/apiarists and 1,622 sites. Applicators or anyone else can go to the site and see a county by county listing of registered sites. Listings include location coordinates, crop, owner/manager contact information and more.
Prior to the registry, applicators were required to notify a beekeeper if they were spraying within two miles of hives. "We would gather information on where beekeepers were to share with applicators," explained Maury Wills, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). "As a result, applicators began asking for more information, such as where organic growers were located."
Over time, with the active support of the IAAA and discussions with grower associations and others, those needs evolved into the registry, a largely voluntary, self-enrollment program. The registry was a service whose time had come, suggested Wills.
As bureau chief for the Agricultural Diversification & Market Development Bureau, he works closely with specialty growers of all types. "We know anecdotally that more and more specialty crops are being grown," said Wills. "The trend is more growers with smaller operations. They are often spotty, tucked into various places."
He points out that sensitive areas are not limited to organic growers. They include apiaries, orchards and a growing number of vineyards. Aside from Missouri, vineyards had been rare to nonexistent in much of the Midwest until recent years. Today, Iowa winegrowers claim more than 50 members and Wisconsin claims more than 100. They represent a real concern to applicators, noted Travis Blockhus, agronomy manager, Winnishiek Cooperative Association.
"We have a lot of grapes grown around us," he said. "That really opens you up to complaints. You don't want to injure any grapes."
Blockhus also has to deal with a substantial number of other sensitive areas. In Winnishiek County alone, he has a dozen producers with 58 sites, including organci vegtables, orchards, vineyards and 15 different apiary sites. "With the amount of sensitive crops around us, we are a lot more aware of potential concerns than we used to be," said Blockhus.
"We look at the registry and try to get as much information as we can, sometimes making different product choices or spray tips to use near sensitive areas," he said. "We watch wind speeds and conditions and follow the label closely."
The registry also helps with preemptive communication. Sensitive sites are marked on spray maps, and all co-op operations are georeferenced. "We can call them up and stay in touch with what they are doing and let them know what we are doing," said Blockhus. "Our complaints in this area have gone down a lot as far as drift is concerned, thanks to improved equipment, technology and awareness."
Complaints Impact Insurance
Keeping complaints to a minimum is a good thing for everyone, noted Todd Meyer, agronomy adjustor, Austin Mutual Insurance Company. "Insurance rates are affected by past history," he said. "A clean history means lower rates. A loss history doesn't just resonate with your current company either. Other companies will look at your loss history when bidding on your business."
Meyer pointed to the growing number of rural residences and hobby farms as additional points for applicator care, due to their lack of knowledge of agricultural chemicals. Concern for landscaping and higher priced trees than typical older farmsteads might also play a role, as well as considering themselves organic, even if not certified.
However, he emphasized conventional producers with high value crops should also be considered sensitive areas. He noted a claim he was dealing with at the time of the interview of possible glyphosate drift on popcorn. Meyer endorsed Blockhus' efforts to communicate clearly with nearby residents, letting them know what is being sprayed and when.
"Stop by and visit," advised Meyer. "If you know there is potential for concern, try to work the area when there is no wind or when there is a slight breeze away from the sensitive area."
Bill Johnson, professor, Botany and Plant Pathology, Purdue University, is more blunt. "Park the sprayer when windy," he advised, as the best way to avoid complaints. ""What you have to think about is if I spray next to this guy, am I creating a situation, even if a product doesn't drift off-site."
Future Drift Concerns
Introduction of 2,4-D and dicamba tolerant traits may soon raise drift concerns to new heights among conventional producers, as well as organic and non-organic high value crop growers. Austin Mutual's Meyer said these products represent one of his biggest concerns moving forward as stacked traits differ from field to field. Accidental misapplication risk will be multiplied with the real risk of volatilization.
Blockhus seconded Meyer's concern about the new "old" products. "We have dicamba products now and just kind of stay away from them," he said. "We are going to have to evaluate the volatility of these new products. With the price of commodities today, insurance claims could be substantial."
Johnson pointed to past concerns with these products and the learning curve that took place then, as well as similar problems when glyphosate-tolerant crops were first introduced. "We got smarter in how we sprayed, dealt with drift and volatility and made it through," he said.
"However, we didn't have the enhanced sensitivities we do today. I expect the new formulations will be less likely to volatilize. It will be interesting to see how Dow, Monsanto and others incentivize retailers and farmers to use the new formulations."
Although the drift and volatilization challenges to the new dicamba and 2,4-D traits are yet unknown, Beth Sandburg, acting chief, IDALS Pesticide Bureau, has concerns for the increase in the number of drift complaints this technology may bring. She is confident that the majority of ag applicators are working to manage drift, but the new technology will require attention.
"We've come a long way as an industry over the past few decades," she said. "Are we still getting drift? Yes. Can we improve? Yes. However, decades ago we might get an aerial application complaint and see a grove of trees fried brown with analysis results of 20 to 30 ppm or more. We don't see that as much anymore, and most samples are in the parts per billion. If applicators work with people who have concerns, it seems to go a long way."