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Killer compost has negatively affected farms and gardens across the country. Toxic herbicides containing the chemical aminopyralid have become more common on ranches and lawns. Since aminopyralid is resistant to breaking down, many small-scale organic farmers have suffered devastating losses after unknowingly spreading compost laced with the chemical on their garden plots. One reader from central Oregon shares the story of her personal encounter with killer compost.
When I bought my farm, I inherited a weedy pasture that had clover and plantain that seemed to be out-competing the grass in some sections of the field. As I was planning to board a couple of outside horses, possibly elder retirees with delicate constitutions, I consulted my veterinarians. They unanimously felt that it would be best to restore the pasture for the sake of horse health. I subsequently sought help from my county extension agents as well as a local feed store that specializes in field management to devise a good strategy. Both the university extension and the feed store encouraged me to use herbicide to restore the grass and make a safer, more nutritious horse forage.
When I moved to the farm, it was the culmination of my long-awaited dream to have a commercial organic produce farm. Because of the low fertility and lack of organic matter in our central Oregon soil, I knew that composting would be critical to improving the quality of my land. I felt lucky that I would be creating my own compost with my horses and laying hens, thus saving the expense of having to truck it in.
I had told both the extension agents and the feed store representative that my primary business was produce; I was expecting to apply for organic certification in the fall, thus it would be extremely important to avoid contaminating the garden with any toxic chemicals. We agreed that the feed store representative would call me to make an appointment to come out, walk my pasture and discuss my options. A few days later, an applicator arrived without an appointment and with a tank of herbicide. It was a typical, harried day on the farm and I was taken by surprise. But, here he was. I knew I had explained my situation thoroughly to the store manager, so I took the applicator to the field. On the way, I made sure to point out my adjacent organic garden and compost piles and, once again, emphasized my need to avoid any contamination.
A few weeks after the field was sprayed, Mother Earth News arrived in my mailbox. It has become a kind of ritual to make the magazine’s arrival an excuse for a break from the physical labor of farming. I made some tea, reclined on the living room couch and read the entire contents. There was one article in the issue that gave me particular pause. It was an article about the dangers of the herbicide aminopyralid. The story described how produce farms in England and Pennsylvania had been ruined when farmers unsuspectingly used composted manure from animals that had grazed on fields sprayed with aminopyralid. I learned that the chemical remains potent for approximately two years, and does not break down in compost. I pitied those poor farmers and wondered just how long they had to put their dreams on hold, how much farm income they might have lost, before their soil was clean and usable again. Then a chill ran down my spine — what if aminopyralid was in the tank that came to my farm?
But surely, I assumed, because of my prior discussion with the feed store manager and because I pointed out my manure compost piles to the applicator, I would have been warned of the chemical’s long-lived toxicity and had me the option of not using this particular chemical. Just to be sure that I’d been protected, I called the store and requested that a list of the chemicals used be sent to me.
Much to my horror – there it was: “Milestone VM.” I felt betrayed. Now I had a crisis on my hands, not to mention a farm management headache for the next two years, at least. I dutifully clean my pastures weekly to get the manure curing in a compost pile as quickly as possible. Were it not for Mother, poisoned manure from my compost pile would have found its way into my garden.
But wait — Mother needs to know that in spite of her warning, the problem continues! Taking responsibility for their failure to notify me of the downstream hazards of this chemical, the feed store manager agreed to personally truck in compost of my choosing to replace my tainted piles. I found a dark, promising pile from a trusted friend who assured me that her horses had only eaten unsprayed forage and hay. My crew and I joyfully hoed this rich amendment into rows for planting potatoes, beans and tomatoes.
Epinasty: This word I’d never heard soon became a disheartening mantra in my following discussions with my local university extension service and, ultimately, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). My beans, potatoes and tomatoes emerged curled and cupped — monstrosities. It only gets worse: My neighbors, small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmers like me, also began experiencing epinasty in their potatoes and poor germination in other plant varieties. Yet, we had acquired compost piles from completely separate sources. The problem was bigger than I imagined.
I called a regional sales agent from Dow Chemical, the makers of the product. When I explained my experience and asked how the company was taking precautions to prevent “downstream” contamination, he kept repeating over the telephone, “The label is the law, the label is the law”. OK. So I went to my local feed store and found that this chemical was conveniently available in a home-owner sized bottle, over the counter. The label gave a warning that applicators and sellers were legally required to notify consumers that the chemical remained potent in manure and grass clippings. Clearly, this was not happening, nor did I expect it would happen. This is a new class of chemical with a new effect. Our society is so habituated to casually using hazardous chemicals on lawns, golf courses and farms; I had my doubts about any newfound vigilance. On a completely unrelated trip to my feed store, I overheard a salesperson recommending Milestone to a homeowner to rid their lawn of plantain, with no caveats about contaminated grass clippings.
My friend who had provided me with the compost called her hay grower and he denied using the chemical. My region’s agriculture has historically been hay and cattle ranches, and the feed store manager explained how, more and more, their ranching clients were requesting this product. Yet, there is a growing trend here, and nationally, toward small-scale, diversified food farming. It is a shame to pit farmer against farmer, where one farmer’s activity can have such deleterious consequences to a neighbor farm.
Sustainable and organic vegetable growers depend on the age-old practice of using compost to improve soil and provide fertility. Manure from animals is a valuable source of organic matter and nitrogen, and is essential for closed-circle farm ecology, minimizing the need for expensive commercial fertilizers and making good use of so-called “waste products.” As more and more people are attempting to grow their own food or start farming produce to feed the local community, it is crucial that we find a way to prevent this persistent poison from contaminating our vegetable farms.
When the ODA and Oregon State University came out to assess the damage to my farm, I got a quick lesson in just how vulnerable I and the other pioneer food farmers in the area were, in the face of accidental herbicide carryover. The experts squinted their eyes and fingered the curled upper brown leaves of my asparagus and raspberries. They said they suspected I’d received a “double whammy” — aminopyralid “from below” in the soil — which affected my beans, potatoes and tomatoes — and drift from a neighbor’s hay farm “from above,” in air that wafted over my asparagus and raspberry plots. I looked all around me — acres and acres of pastures and hayfields. I wondered, which neighbor? The extension agent explained, “Under certain conditions, for instance, a hot spell following a rain, herbicides can vaporize, rise up and travel ten miles on a breeze before they drop back to the ground.” Ten miles!
I believe that my neighbors would never intentionally harm my farming business, but surely there should be strong systems in place to prevent, or at least track, contamination for further study — to find out how widespread the problem is and determine strategies to fix the issue. When the ODA agreed, after some persistent foot-stamping and hang-wringing on my part, to test my tainted soil to unequivocally identify the chemical culprit, the test came back inconclusive. The ODA agent explained that, although they were convinced that the toxin in both my and my neighbor’s soil was aminopyralid, the test for the chemical was not reliable in a soil or compost substrate.
It occurred to me how the Environmental Protection Agency has not taken adequate steps in this case to do its duty to protect our environment. They appear to have approved a very destructive substance with no possibility of tracking its use or monitoring its harmful effects. So Dear Mother, Help! What’s the next step in insuring that no other produce farm will be the victim of unintentional aminopyralid poisoning?
P.S. I now have two lovely dairy goats, Daphne and Chloe, who, among other virtues, provide me with organic weed control for my pastures.
For more information on aminopyralid contamination and killer compost, see our other articles on this topic:
Watch Out for Killer Compost
Protect Your Garden From Killer Compost
Milestone Herbicide Creates Killer Compost