Catching the (Pesticide) Drift

Important work on pesticide drift is afoot in Iowa. Pesticide drift, as you may know, is when pesticides applied in one area travel by air to another area, and in doing so they can cause damage to fruit and vegetable crops as well as pose health risks to nearby communities. At WFAN, we’re masters (mistresses?) of keeping the big picture in mind as we do local work. In this vein, today we bring you a dual post from two WFAN Board members, Patti Edwardson (pictured) Pattiand Anna Johnson, where we give you simultaneously a bird’s-eye view of current policy efforts around pesticide drift in Iowa as well as a boots-on-the-ground recap of the work involved in monitoring pesticide drift. Don’t miss the links to other resources if you want to learn more about pesticide drift in Iowa and beyond! Patti: My partner and I raise non-GMO corn and soybeans in west-central Iowa, but are in the second year of transitioning a portion of the farm to organic production. So, last winter, I responded to an email from Pesticide Action Network looking for volunteers to monitor pesticide drift on their farms. After a phone interview regarding my interest in the project and about pesticide drift probability on my farm, I was chosen to be a part of this unique program that monitors and documents incidences of pesticide drift in rural communities. Drift happens, and it can adversely affect people, bees, animals, and crops. However, drift can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly to prove. Programs such as this collect real data to be used to influence changes in policies and practices.

Anna: Did you know that every state has different protections for people who experience drift events? WFAN has teamed up in a coalition with the Iowa Farmers Union (IFU), the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), and the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) to work on improving protections for farmers who suffer from pesticide drift in Iowa. Two bills to improve protections from pesticide drift were introduced during Iowa’s last legislative session, and while neither passed, it was an important first step to raising awareness around the issue.

Patti: In April, the other half-dozen Iowa volunteers and I met with Lex Horan, PAN’s Midwest Organizer, and Emily Marquez, Staff Scientist, for a full day of training. We learned about the problems that growers have when pesticides from other farms drift onto their own crops, what types of pesticides the drift catcher is able to “catch,” and how to set up the drift catcher apparatus.

Then, we waited. Spring applications of fertilizer and herbicides are generally not easily detected by the drift catcher that we are using. Insecticides and fungicides applied in mid-summer are more likely to be found with this method. It has been a wet, humid growing season, making corn more susceptible to fungi. So, when I spotted an airplane spraying a corn field within a mile of our orchard, I set up the drift catcher. I carefully placed the glass sampling tubes into the manifold and turned on the pump. After adjusting the airflow and recording the wind and temperature, I let the drift catcher do its job.

Anna: With an eye to the next legislative session, the Pesticide Action Network and the Iowa Farmers’ Union are looking for farmer leaders in each of Iowa’s legislative districts who are willing to meet with their representatives about the issue of pesticide drift. The goal is to educate representatives on this issue and gain their support during next year’s legislative session. If you’re an Iowa farmer and are interested in learning more or getting involved in that effort, you can sign up here.

Patti: Each step of using the drift catcher is precise. Volunteers are required to record details regarding placement of the catcher; wind, weather, and temperature; odors in the air; and pesticide spraying activity in their area. Each glass tube, once removed from the catcher, is logged with code and time, then placed in a freezer until shipped to the PAN office in San Francisco. A lab will analyze the samples to determine what pesticides drifted in the air and in what quantities.

Anna: If you haven’t seen it, check out this really important brochure for growers that Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Pesticide Action Network have put together on what to do if you or your property is exposed to pesticides. Pesticide Action Network has additional resources for those of you who aren’t in Iowa but are struggling with issues around pesticide drift in your community. Contact Linda Wells at with questions, concerns, and, if you’re willing, stories to share.

Patti: I faithfully changed the sampling tubes each day for five days. I recorded my observations which included seeing two more airplanes spraying in my vicinity. Each time, however, the wind was in such as direction as to send any drift away from my farm. I almost (but not quite) wanted the fungicide to drift in my direction so I could “catch” it! Rainy weather then forced me to dismantle the drift catcher for several days. As of this writing, I am still waiting for the two corn fields closest to me to be sprayed. Will I catch their drift? I will try. Then I will send in the sampling tubes and wait for the results. With this small commitment, I hope to contribute to positive changes in the farming practices that affect this beautiful state.

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