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Organic growers battle proposed pesticide spraying rules

(Thursday, Nov. 7, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

PAUL NOWELL, AP, 11/06/2002: CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Tom Elmore wants to keep supplying the nation's booming organic foods industry with tomatoes, okra, blueberries and other pesticide-free crops he raises on his small farm near Asheville.

But, like many of his peers, Elmore is concerned about fallout - the economic kind that may come from a proposal to change North Carolina's regulations that bar crop-dusters from allowing even tiny amounts of pesticide to drift where they were not intended to go.

Under the proposed revisions before the North Carolina Department of Agriculture's pesticide board, there would no longer be any "pesticide-free" zones around homes, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and churches.

Instead, buffers between "spray" zones and "no-spray" zones could contain pesticide residue of 6 parts per million without being a violation and triggering sanctions against the applicator.

Organic growers fear they have much more to lose because minute amounts of pesticides and herbicides could drift onto their farms. That could cause them to lose their designation as a "certified organic grower" for up to three years.

"This could take away our livelihood," said Elmore, who operates a 10-acre farm near Leicester, just northwest of Asheville.

State regulations on aerial spraying of pesticides were beefed up following a 1982 incident in the rural Chatham County community of Gorgas. A potent herbicide that locals dubbed "white rain" was inadvertently sprayed onto homes, gardens, farm animals and pets.

Two years later, the pesticide board stiffened the rules to prevent crop-dusters from allowing any drift into "no-spray" zones within 100 feet of homes and 300 feet of schools, hospitals, churches and nursing homes.

Now the board is weighing another proposal to revise the rules. The panel has conducted public meetings in Fletcher and Greenville and will hold another Tuesday in Raleigh.

Pesticide board administrator James Burnette Jr. says it's one of the most important decisions the board has ever been asked to make.

"A lot of the organic farmers are upset because it takes several years to get certified as an organic grower," he said. "If there's any level (of pesticides on their crops) they could lose their certification."

Fawn Pattison, of the Agricultural Resources Center in Carrboro, which opposes pesticide spraying, said the proposed penalties for aerial sprayers who miss the mark are too lenient.

"If they are reported, they can get a (small) fine, which won't put them out of business," she said.

Elmore said the new regulations would carry a $500 fine for private applicators and $2,000 for commercial applicators.

"We're talking about a maximum of $2,000 for them and a loss of a couple of hundred thousand dollars to me if I go out of business," he said.

"It could be devastating," said Aubrey Raper, an organic farmer in Marshall and head of Carolina Organic Growers, Inc., an organic food co-op with more than 20 members.

"Our co-op did $700,000 in sales last year," he said. "We stand to lose a lot if we lose the participation of growers."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has left pesticide spraying regulations up to the states, Pattison said, because of the topographical differences between mountainous states like Vermont and ones with generally flat terrain such as Nebraska.

Some states have quarter-mile buffers for all pesticide spraying and others, like Vermont, do not allow any spraying over mountains, she said.

Boyd Respess, a Beaufort County crop-duster who helped draft the rule changes in North Carolina, said keeping all pesticides out of the buffer areas and still doing his job isn't possible.

"I have children, and I have eight grandchildren and I feel comfortable with this level," he said. "We have to get away from zero and I feel 6 parts per million is reasonable."

Burnette insists the proposed changes were not intended to lessen restrictions on aerial applicators.

"In most cases applicators are doing all they can, using the best equipment and pulling back (when they are close to no-spray zones)," he said. "Even with all those precautions, right now they are being cited for being careless, faulty and negligent.

"The board wanted a bright line for enforcement," Burnette said.

Organic growers aren't so sure their message is being heard in Raleigh.

"These proposed rules reflect a lack of understanding how our industry works," said Elmore. "It's a dangerous precedent to set any acceptable level (of contamination) for homes, schools and organic farms."

Once a year, Elmore has to submit a 20-page application to Quality Certification Services, a Florida company that's one of about two dozen firms in the nation that certifies organic growers. His farm also is visited by a company inspector to make sure it meets all regulations.

What concerns growers is that a sprayer's error - and nothing that they did - could put them in violation and potentially cause them to forfeit their organic certification for up to three years.

"I'm concerned about my garden and people, plants and animals," said Karen Watkins, who has an organic garden on her property in Mitchell County. "I personally believe the rules should be strengthened rather than weakened."

See this story at: http://newsobserver.com/nc24hour/ncbusiness/story/1890261p-1876872c.html

On the Net:

Agricultural Resources Center: http://www.ibiblio.org/arc

Carolina Organic Growers: http://www.carolinaorganicgrowers.com

N.C. Agriculture Department pesticide information: http://www.ncagr.com/fooddrug/pesticid/authorit.htm