If you are a home gardener you can make an effective pesticide by steeping a pack of cigarettes in a mason jar full of tap water. Nicotine is that deadly! And if you’re a cheap soul you can pick up stray butts off the sidewalk or rob ashtrays to make your bootleg pesticide almost for free. But for farms such home brew pesticides aren’t cost effective to produce or legal to use. Let me tell you how pesticides work- legally, that is- and explain the role they play on our farm.
There are “conventional,” synthetic, chemically based pesticides, and there are “organic” pesticides derived from botanic or mineral substances, but they are all toxic; that’s the point! It would be more accurate to “re-brand” pesticides as “biocides,” since they don’t just kill pests, but also beneficial, innocuous, and innocent life forms with the bad luck to be in the path of a spray rig. You and I are closely related biologically to the organisms that plague our crops and thus vulnerable to the same poisons. Our government, as the putative guarantor of the health and safety of our shared environment, naturally takes measures to direct the use of pesticides, both conventional and organic, so that they are used in such a way as to not endanger the health of the industries that manufacture them, the vendors who sell them, the workers who apply them, the consumers who eat the crops to which they are applied, or the birds and animals (including humans) that drink the water that might be contaminated with them.
True, Joe or Jane Home Owner can go to the hardware store, buy pesticide in a little jar, ignore the instructions, and use twice as much as the label calls for because “more is better” and “bugs are icky.” They can apply the pesticides to any plant they choose, no matter whether the pesticide has been registered for that crop or not, and then they can dump the leftovers down the sink to contaminate our ground water because who’s checking? But farmers need to behave more professionally. Pesticides are, after all, deadly and very expensive. And there are rules.
Nobody can buy pesticides in commercial quantities for use on a farm without possessing a numbered pesticide use permit. These permits are granted to the grower only after the grower has passed a written test on how the pesticides can and should be applied. Before purchasing pesticides the grower must present the pesticide dealer with the valid permit. The pesticide vendor must record each purchase of each pesticide by each pesticide use permit holder and keep those sales records on file in case the county should see fit to inspect either the grower or the vendor. When a grower’s pesticide use permit expires the vendor can not sell any more pesticide to them until they have a new, valid permit on file. Obviously, such strict regulations on the sale of pesticides has produced a brisk black market for stolen agricultural chemicals, but that is another topic for another day.
When a grower has their inventory of legally acquired pesticides in hand and reason to use them there are more procedures to follow. All applications of pesticides, organic or conventional, must be noted on a pesticide use report that must be turned into the county agricultural department each month. The reports must include the following information; name of applicator, legal description of the lot of land where the pesticide was applied, the crop it was applied to, the quantity and concentration of the material applied, the time of day it was applied, the target of the application, and the vendor from whom the pesticide was obtained. Theoretically, if a consumer dropped dead or got sick from eating tainted food, once the inspectors knew which farm the poisoned produce had come from they’d be able to cross reference the information on the use reports from the farm with the sales records from the pesticide dealers to see why and how the problem occurred, determine if any laws had been broken, and fix liability so that the insurance companies could work it all out.
From a grower’s point of view it’s not enough to simply spray poison if there is a pest infestation; the sprays must be effective! Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of pesticides; systemic and contact poisons. Systemic poisons are sprayed on the foliage of a plant and the plant takes the toxin into its tissue; then, when a bug eats the plant, it becomes poisoned, and it dies. And there are contact pesticides which must physically touch or coat the pest in order to kill it. Pesticides are best applied at the crack of dawn when the air is still so that there is no drift which might carry the expensive sprays away from the target crop. And, to be effective, pesticides must be applied when the pest population is at a critical limit. Fields must be monitored by people who know what to look for. Prophylactic spraying is a poor use of resources; human, chemical, financial, or otherwise.
My problem with pesticides began over 10 years ago. I wanted to use Safer soap against aphids on kale. Safer soap is an approved organic pesticide that acts as a detergent and melts the waxy coating on an aphid’s body so that the aphid dies from exposure. Safer soap is a soap and can actually be used as hand soap if you wanted to waste your money- it’s that safe. Safer soap is also a “spreader-sticker agent;” that is, it is often mixed with other, potentially deadly organic or synthetic pesticides to “spread” out the mix economically and create a cocktail that “sticks” more to the pest. Like all pesticides, Safer soap is a controlled substance, so unless I passed the test to update my pesticide use permit I couldn’t buy the material. The woman at the ag office gave me a bunch of reading material to review before taking the test. There was lots of information to memorize about chemical pesticides which I didn’t plan to use. I didn’t get into farming because I was good at chemistry. Nor, once I graduated from college with my degree in the history of Western Philosophy, did I have any excitement left in my blood for studying stuff that I find irrelevant or that isn’t entertaining.
So I didn’t study, I didn’t take the test, I didn’t get a pesticide use permit, and I didn‘t spray the aphids on the kale. I didn’t have a bad aphid problem, and besides, I had a lot of other stuff to contend with at the time. But the woman at the ag office took the opportunity to call me up, reprimand me, and tell me that if I didn’t trot my tootsie into her office and take the test forthwith I’d have a late fee applied. That did it. Maybe, in her own petty, resentful, graceless, bureaucratic way, she was trying to be nice and save me some money, but I took the interaction as a chewing out from a bored, entitled, public employee who thought she had something over me and was whiling away the hours until retirement. So I took her call as a challenge to do absolutely nothing.
A year passed.
The ag office called up again and reminded me I hadn’t renewed my pesticide use permit. I thought about the issue for some time. Yes, I’d lost some crops to pests over the past year, but how much money had I lost? It costs money to buy pesticide; even organic pesticide. (And I don’t smoke.) It costs money to apply pesticide. It costs money to effectively monitor the fields so that pesticide applications are not in vain. Accurate record keeping costs money, as does going down to the County and filing the use reports. The spray equipment costs money. The labor to spray is expensive. Plus, I don’t want to spray pesticide. The consumer worries about a toxic residue on their food but the person doing the spraying is potentially exposed to very high concentrations of the undiluted poison. And I don’t want the responsibility for the well being of my workers who would be spraying on my karmic spreadsheet either, some of whom I know to be too macho to wear masks, and others of whom can‘t read the warning labels. Effective pesticide use training costs money. And I grow so many crops on such a small scale that the requisite close monitoring of pest populations for optimum control is difficult. For a farm operation of my size there’s no economy of scale. I decided to see if I could continue to survive as a business growing produce without any pesticide; organic, conventional, or bootleg.
Instead, I redoubled my efforts to create a sustainable farms cape that relies on beneficial insects to control tolerable levels of pest insects. I let the bushes at the edge of the field mature into hedgerows that harbor the birds that eat insects. I eliminated every crop from my planting program that seemed weak or especially susceptible to insect or fungal pests. And I lost crops. In fact, last week I lost the crop of Genovese basil I had planned to harvest this week to a fungus. I’m sad about the loss of money and I regret the loss of the basil. Luckily, I noticed that the row of Napolitano basil I had planted next to the Genovese basil seemed relatively unscathed. Tomorrow I plant 5000 Napolitano basil plants hoping to have a healthy crop of basil in time for our main crop of tomatoes.
Maybe the woman at the county office gets the last laugh and I go out of business before she retires because I can’t control my pests. But I’m an idealist, and as I push my way through middle age I’ve come to doubt the validity of concepts of control that underlie conventional pest management. I believe that there’s a balance in nature and that if I can create a farmscape that attracts beneficial insects and birds to keep the pest populations within tolerable limits then I can also attract the consumers who will pay to support my farming practices. I’m sorry about the basil. I appreciate your patience and support.
© 2013 Article and photos by Andy Griffin.
There’s still space available in our Mariquita Farm CSA program. More information here!
A few of our upcoming Mystery Thursday and Ladybug Bulk Deliveries:
- June 6th: Mystery Thursday at Slow Club in San Francisco
- June 12th: Ladybug Delivery at Square Meals in San Francisco
- June 13th: Mystery Thursday at Camino in Oakland
- June 14th: Ladybug Delivery at Chocolate Lab in Dog Patch in San Francisco