Organic Farmers Stop Dimilin Pesticide Spraying

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Gypsy moths on a tree.

The April 21 radio news program probably went unnoticed n most Michigan homes, but one segment of that broadcast made wholistic farmer Ann Hunt sit up and listen:

“Portions of Clare, Isabella, Mecosta, Montcalm, and Saginaw Counties,” the announcer said, “will be sprayed this spring to control gypsy moths.”

Ann was, of course, concerned. But, when she began to search for additional information about the moth control program, she ran into countless red-tape roadblocks. Finally, Ms. Hunt went to the Mount Pleasant, Michigan USDA office, where she was told that her family’s Ragged Rainbow Farm was indeed in the target area and would be sprayed with a chemical pesticide called Dimilin.

The USDA people didn’t offer much additional information, but Ann and Phillip Hunt knew that something had to be done. (After all, they earned their living from the sale of “organically” grown products.) To get the ball rollin’, the Hunts contacted 30 other folks whose lands also would be affected by the proposed pesticide “bombing.” These people met at Ragged Rainbow Farm to prepare a list of questions, which they hoped to present at a May 31 “public meeting” with the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

If the bureaucrats were surprised when their small assembly room suddenly was filled to beyond its seating capacity, they certainly didn’t let the evidence of public concern change their plans. Most of the questions that the farmers’ group had so carefully prepared went unanswered. Worse yet, the MDA announced that Dimilin would, indeed, be sprayed, and that it would be used on fence-rows, single trees in planted fields, and houseside shrubs, as well as in the “uninhabited forests” that the chemical was supposed to protect. Many of the wholistic farmers—who had expected their needs to be at least considered—left the room confused and angry. They weren’t ready to give up, however. How could they, when in many cases their livelihood depended upon a pesticide-free crop? It was mostly out of desperation that the original group of landowners formed the Citizens Against Chemical Contamination and began to take steps to protect their farms.

In order to prepare for their “campaign,” the new organization’s members set out to learn all they could about the proposed “insect control” operation. This data was gathered through contacts with the EPA, test results obtained from the pesticide’s manufacturer, copies of the MDA’s 1978 Gypsy Moth Management Action Plan, and the study of alternate ecologically sound-methods of dealing with the bugs.

The citizens’ group picked up members and support as it went along, and its confidence grew. But on May 11, second discussion with USDA and MDA officials made the situation seem next to hopeless.

The state and federal spokesmen assured everyone that Dimilin was “completely innocuous,” and then announced that there would be no exceptions from the spray program. What’s more, the “public servants” stated that alternative control methods would not be considered even if they were used at the landowner’s expense, and even if that person’s way of life was at stake.

To cap off the already unpleasant evening, a lawyer who was present at the time told CACC that it had a “less than ten percent” chance of winning, should the group decide to take the matter before the courts. The farmers were worried. Some went so far as to discuss passive resistance, but even this “radical” proposal had an air of futility about it. The landowners were close to being beaten.

One day later, however, the situation took a turn for the better. The Chicago office of the EPA mailed a copy of the Dimilin label to the CACC office. That label—according to government regulations—had the “force and effect of law,” and yet it specifically prohibited many of the things that the MDA had planned to do. The identification tag warned, for instance, that Dimilin was harmful to humans and that contamination of foodstuffs should be avoided. The label also listed the substance as a potential environmental hazard, and stated that the pesticide should not be applied to crops, or in any area used for food, feed, hay, or pasture.

CACC confronted the state and federal representatives with this information, and were told that an “official expanded label” allowed the MDA to ignore the original warnings. The farmers weren’t about to be put off so easily, though. They called the Washington EPA and discovered that the environmental agency was unaware of any “expanded” label … and that the APHIS program itself was under EPA investigation.

At this point the group had enough evidence to go into action. They hired attorney James Olson and put the case before Judge Ray Hotchkiss of the Ingham County Circuit Court. As a result of the information presented by the wholistic farmers, Judge Hotchkiss granted a temporary restraining order against the MDA until another hearing could be held on June 1.

As it turned out, however, the matter was pretty much resolved before that second hearing came about. On May 31 the EPA told the Michigan Department of Agriculture that it must follow the regulations contained on the original Dimilin label. This caused the MDA to announce that because of “apparent confusion in the Environmental Protection Agency” the pesticide would not be sprayed in 1978. Judge Hotchkiss held the June 1 meeting as planned, though, and issued a preliminary injunction against the MDA—which included an order that the chemical be removed from the state within thirty days. And, perhaps most important of all, the case will remain on the court docket and can be reopened whenever necessary.

Although the Citizens Against Chemical Contamination won this first battle, its members aren’t ready to disband just yet. They plan to write an amendment to Michigan state law that will prohibit government use of pesticides on private land unless the property owner is allowed (if he or she chooses) to employ alternative pest control methods first.

This sort of action is expensive, though. The CACC folks have put their farms, businesses, and homesteads on the line, because they want to keep the organization going both to “watchdog” government spray programs and to push for more laws that return control of the land to the people who work it.