Pesticide drift awareness important for farmers, rural residents of Iowa

The growing season is well underway in Iowa, and with it many farmers and certified applicators will be applying pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to crop fields. While on-target application is the goal, drift from these chemicals onto neighboring farm fields, yards and communities is a regular occurrence.

Each drift episode poses financial and health risks to nearby people, livestock, wildlife and the environment. To help reduce the number and severity of these occurrences, Practical Farmers of Iowa encourages chemical applicators and rural residents to be more aware of the prevalence and impact of pesticide drift.

Pesticide drift is defined as the physical movement of a pesticide through the air at the time of application or soon thereafter, to any site other than that intended for application. Drift is illegal under Iowa Code Section 206, but drift happens, and it can damage crops, property and the environment, and harm people if they are inadvertently sprayed or unknowingly consume affected products.

Crop damages from drift can be financially devastating for fruit and vegetable farms, organic farms and those raising non-GMO crops. Organic farms can also lose their certification for three years following a drift incident.

Jordan Scheibel of Middle Way Farm near Grinnell was one of nearly 200 Iowans to report a spray drift incident during the 2013 crop year. A neighboring farmer applied the herbicides Roundup and atrazine to an adjacent field on a day when the breeze was directed toward Middle Way Farm. Although Scheibel maintains a 30-foot buffer strip between his vegetable field and his neighbor’s conventional farm field, damage to his vegetable crops was found as far as 130 feet from where the herbicides were applied.
Scheibel suffered a major crop loss, and his reputation as a local food producer was put in jeopardy. “I advertise myself as chemical-free, and I felt I unwittingly misled my customers. I had to be as up-front as possible about what happened, while not destroying my reputation and ability to continue operating as a chemical-free producer in the Grinnell market,” he shared.

Preventing such incidents will require all farmers and rural residents to become more aware of the reality of drift in Iowa. A number of preventive actions can also be taken. Fruit and vegetable growers who meet the minimum acreage requirement (one-half to ond acre) are eligible to register on the Sensitive Crop Directory through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). Pesticide applicators are required to consult this online directory, which lists sensitive crop locations.

Farmers and rural residents can share their concerns with neighbors and local cooperatives, establish a friendly relationship and ask for extra caution when applying chemicals near their farm or property. Farmers planning to apply chemicals can also employ a range of practices to minimize the risk of spray drift.

For instance, Dick Sloan says he avoids using certain chemicals, such as the herbicide 2,4-D, near sensitive areas like prairie strips. “It’s important to think about being a good neighbor,” says Sloan, who grows corn, soybeans and small grains near Rowley. He also tries to apply on days with little wind, and keeps the boom low and pressure down. Sloan recommends adding a drift control agent to the chemical mix, which alters the composition of the mixture to ensure it hits and remains on the intended target.

Installing buffers around field or yard borders is another proactive measure. These buffers can consist of non-food-producing trees, shrubs or other plants, and work by intercepting drift that might stray from conventional farm fields. “Create as wide a buffer as possible between conventional fields and sensitive crops,” Scheibel says. “Pay attention to prevailing winds during the times of year when spraying is occurring.”

Chemicals can be applied from a tractor, helicopter or plane. Sometimes, the spray has an odor or looks like a cloud of dust - but not always. If the drift is an herbicide, one may notice damage to nearby plants. If an insecticide or fungicide has drifted, the contamination might not be visible.

Anyone who is or whose property has been exposed to pesticide drift is reminded to seal their home or greenhouse by closing windows and turning off the air conditioning; immediately remove their clothes and shower; and alert any nearby neighbors. They may want to store any contaminated clothes in a plastic bag for later testing.

Once these safety measures are taken, immediately start recording details of the event by photographing damages; noting the time, wind and weather conditions; describing the vehicle used to spray; recording anything smelled, tasted or observed; and listing any actions taken. Also take detailed notes of what was affected, such as crops, livestock, people or plants, and then calculate the value of the damages.

As soon as possible, report the incident to the Pesticide Bureau at IDALS at or 515-281-8591. The Pesticide Bureau will send an investigator to the impacted property within three working days to collect samples for testing. Because these tests often take several months, Scheibel advises using a private lab for additional testing.

“You can get test results faster than the State typically provides. Ask your investigator to take these additional samples for you,” Scheibel suggests. The Pesticide Bureau is able to levy fines against the applicator, but it will be the responsibility of the impacted property owner to seek compensation for the damages.

Practical Farmers of Iowa has several resources on pesticide drift at To increase awareness, Practical Farmers launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #dontdrift, paired with images and quotes from concerned farmers. These images are now making their way to farmers’ CSA boxes and farmers market stands to promote awareness and open discussion.

Practical Farmers is also conducting on-farm research to help farmers learn if they are hitting the mark with pesticides. Sloan is part of the project, sampling unsprayed test strips in his wheat and rye fields. “Working with PFI to document the degree of drift that normally takes place on my farm will help me understand how my farming practices might impact my neighbors.” Look for the results of this project to be shared in 2017.