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Chemical-Intensive Potato Grower Cuts Pesticide Use, While Organic Methods Take Root

(Beyond Pesticides, August 13, 2014) The largest potato grower in the U.S. is finding that using fewer pesticides is better for business and the environment. R.D. Offutt Company cut pesticide use by 30 percent last year, pleasing concerned local residents and environmentalists who have complained about pesticide drift from its fields. The company notes that it is applying a more scientific approach to potato production in an effort to move away from the old approach to pesticide spraying.

potatoholdR.D. Offutt Company, a Fargo-based company established in 1964, is a 190,000-acre farming operation that employs 1,500 people, with more than 3,000 acres in north central Minnesota. Now in response to local residents who have complained for years about pesticide spray drifting off fields and other environmental concerns, Offutt is rethinking the way it grows potatoes and uses pesticides. The company has begun to apply a more scientific approach to potato production, using computer and modeling systems to monitor its potato fields every day for moisture, plant growth and signs of disease. Additionally, Offutt is also planting potato varieties that are more disease-resistant and has altered its crop rotation to lower pesticide use. Potatoes are susceptible to a variety of insects and disease and so, to efforts to reduce incidence of disease, the company has begun to grow potatoes on a field every four years instead of three years. This is because allowing at least one year between crops, the potential for disease causing fungus in the soil reduces by 50 percent.

“There’s no question the old approach to pesticide spraying is no longer acceptable, company agronomist Nick David. “Farming is not gut feeling anymore…Farming is very much real time, field by field.” he said.

Many local residents are pleased that the potential for pesticide drift has lessened. But others would like to see the Offutt’s pesticide use cut even more. One local, Carol Ashley, is a longstanding critic of Offutt farms and founding member of the coalition Toxic Taters. She said pesticide drift from Offutt affected her health and forced her to move 20 miles away. She hopes the company would one day transition to organic farming. Ms. Ashley’s group, Toxic Taters, delivered a petition with more than 20,000 signatures this spring, calling on fast food giant, McDonald’s, to cut pesticide use on potatoes, work with a third party to certify the transition to sustainable practices, increase transparency about pesticide use and fund a public health study in areas impacted by potato production. In 2009, McDonald’s pledged to find ways that reduce pesticide use on the potatoes it purchases.

In addition to pesticide drift, there are also concerns of Offutt’s other impacts on the environment. The company’s plan to grow potatoes less often on each field means more fields are needed, and so Offutt is turning some former forest lands into irrigated potato fields. This has drawn criticism from environmentalists and state officials who bemoan the loss of forest lands.

This summer the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) responded to those complaints with new pesticide best management practices aimed at reducing pesticide drift from potato fields. These management practices recommended by MDA include selecting spray equipment that reduce drift, and being aware of environmental conditions. However, for many pesticides used on potatoes, especially fungicides, it is not the application method that leads to drift, but simply the nature of the product itself. Many fungicides are highly volatile, meaning they easily vaporize off the field, enter the air and move with the wind, sometimes for many miles. Unfortunately, volatilization from fields has been an issue not adequately addressed in the past by relevant local authorities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and volatilization off fields has been documented to impact nearby residents and farm worker communities. Under pressure to protect these vulnerable communities, EPA published for comment a document outlining its criteria to consider volatilization as part of the pesticide risk assessment process in spring 2014. Hopefully, risks posed to human health and the environment would finally be incorporated into the pesticide review process.

Potatoes are a heavy user of pesticides and use more pounds of pesticides per acre than most crops. Farmers often spray on a weekly basis, or even more frequently to try to prevent blight. They also spray herbicides to kill the tops of the plants at the end of the growing season to make the underground tubers easier to harvest. According to Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience database, there are 78 pesticides with established tolerance for potatoes, 30 acutely toxic creating a hazardous environment for farmworkers, 69 are linked to chronic health problems (such as cancer), 21 contaminate streams or groundwater, and 70 are poisonous to wildlife, including ethoprop, mancozeb, chlorothalonil, EPTC and metribuzin. Many leach to groundwater and contaminate surface waters.

Meanwhile, organic production systems have shown that potatoes can be grown without toxic pesticides. These systems nurture plant health through biologically active soil that supplies necessary nutrients, and the adoption of cultural practices like rotations, cultivation techniques, cover crops, and timing of planting. Without changes to the management system, continued reliance on toxic pesticides continues. Certified organic practices and allowed materials in organic agriculture undergo a strict public review process under the guidance of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which is now being undermined by USDA policies that weaken the review process and public oversight. See Beyond Pesticides’ Save Our Organic webpage to see how you can get involved to ensure the growth of organic potato production and all crops. For more information on organic production, see Beyond Pesticides’ organic agriculture webpage.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Bismarck Tribune


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