The Organically-Minded Vs. The Chemically-Inclined: The Missing Tool Required To Call a Truce


Important to note, road signs like these are not visible from the air.

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair agriculture, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny...


Comparable to the Capulets and the Montagues, organic farmers and applicators of every type seem to always be at odds forever and for eternity, but it does not have to be that way, nor should we have to experience any drama to end it. The fact is that both industries have the same basic goal, albeit one reached differently: to feed folks.


The first incredibly important thing to understand is that a difference in opinion does not automatically imply disrespect: conflict is the root of change! Diversity of thought brings on a wonderful motivator for evolution of systems, technology and philosophies. There is enough polarization in this day and age, in every kind of system, that we do not need to drive more wedges in between us when trying to accomplish a common goal.


What is organic and does it exclude us from the practice?


I won't delve into the intricacies of organic certification, as there is good information straight from the source at the Canadian Organic Growers website thoroughly explaining the requirements. However, there is quite a bit of misunderstanding or misinformation being shared through third parties and social media regarding organic certification and the perceived evils of application. Many folks believe that the term organic means essentially "unsprayed or untouched", which is not true! Though preventative measures are often focused on, such as crop rotation and laying down mulches, when it comes to treatments, mechanical means are preferred (think in terms of tilling for weed destruction, hand-removal of caterpillar nests, etc). Although, there is also pesticide use in organic farming when pests become overwhelming!

Spraying BT on wood lots to treat for gypsy moth caterpillars.

In fact, there are organic-certified pesticides. The best example of this is bacillus thuringiensis (BT), a soil bacteria that is harvested and reproduced for killing soft-bodied pests. This is a shining example of our ability to work together as this is exactly what we used in this year's battle against the gypsy moth caterpillars and spruce budworm in the bulk of our forestry work. This helps us treat for these aggressively invasive species, even on organically certified bush lots (such as maple bushlots!) and preserves the organic status of the farm and the biodiversity of the forest by targeting the pest as specifically as possible.


Remember, teamwork makes the dreamwork!


What about when we aren't invited to the party?


Of course this also means that, as applicators, on the majority of occasions organic farmers prefer our absence than our participation. This should not hurt our tender feelings; their industry depends on our absenteeism in their fields.


This is where things become exceedingly complicated.


It is easy for both parties to become emotional over their stance at this point; passionate about how they earn their living and their philosophies on farming. The biggest danger in this already tense relationship is for an applicator to accidently spray, or drift on, an organic field. But how can this even happen?


Everyone involved is human, so of course the unsatisfying answer is that to err is human. There are a hundred different ways for things to go sideways, but the biggest failure is in miscommunication and lack of professionalism.


When a farmer books an application, he shares his land location or his map in a myriad of ways. If the exchange between farmer and applicator results in mapping the wrong field during the booking, then there is the potential for an organic field to be caught in crossfire and find itself victim of unwanted application. It is important to find multiple ways to confirm the location, especially visually. With today's technology, being able to find the field via Google satellite view is often the preferred practice, as you can confirm either via land location, GPS waypoints, AND a visual reference to a map.


Garbage in, garbage out; many instructors use this line as a caution for entering your GPS coordinates especially carefully, and to double-check your entries. In the prairies, with the land so satisfyingly divided in sections and quarters, a land location is often the starting point for an applicator's navigation. Once more, other then double checking the coordinates, it is important to verify that the field has the correct crop, and correct visual indicators before commencing application. When in doubt, call the farmer or your home base for confirmation!


Omission of information, whether intentional or not is also hugely problematic. As a farmer contacts an applicator for a booking, the standard exchange of information includes inquiring for hazards in the area, including sensitive areas; this could include livestock barns, beehives, horse pastures, subdivisions, powerlines, towers, and, of course, adjacent organic operations. There is the possibility that the inquiring farmer doesn't know about his neighbor's organic project, or perhaps the field to be sprayed is rented or recently purchased and the customer is unaware of a nearby organic farmland. There are also, unfortunately, those who will chose to omit this information as to not dissuade the applicator from taking the job or from having to apply any buffers, or organic farms that hide their status from fear of sabotage. This is simply bad practice and more likely to cause problems rather than avoid them.


Professionalism is expected from the applicator accepting the work order. It is a term we all hear but one that is difficult to define; professionalism is doing the right thing even when no body is looking. Part of the way that professionalism is demonstrated is via the choice to withhold application until appropriate weather conditions manifest themselves. Though an applicator may be aware of an organic field adjacent to the field to be sprayed and proper buffer zones observed, it is all for naught if the wind is howling or blowing the wrong way. There is also an expectation that application will be done at optimal spray height (recommended at 8-10 feet for aerial applications) whenever possible to reduce the risk of drift.


Verifying the booking, verifying that you've flown to the correct field, applying buffers, flying at the correct height, waiting for optimal weather conditions (low wind, with the organic farm upwind, no inversion, etc), choosing the best pattern (to avoid overflight of organic fields), or declining the work if those conditions are unable to be met are all solid, professional steps to take when working around our organically-minded brethren. We also hope for that mutual respect from organic farms, to allow us to do our work with respectful distance, without interfering or attempting to dissuade us from earning a living by protecting our farmers' yield with appropriate, prescribed, chemical use.


Failure to do so results in unfortunate situations for EVERYONE.


If an organic field gets sprayed with inorganic product, organic certification may be lost for that particular field for four years. This is, of course, detrimental to the farmer's business who relied on the organic certification to fulfil certain sales and contracts. Losses incurred can now be expected to be paid out by the applicator in question. Not only does the farmer lose his status, but the applicator will be at a financial loss. Not to mention the cost of the chemical & application if the product was used on an entirely incorrect field. There is not a single player in this scenario that comes out winning, or happy. This is a lose-lose for both parties.


It is also important that our organic farmers understand that these incidents are unintentional; the applicator will be paying for their mistakes and it does not bring anyone joy. Threats are an unacceptable response to this unfortunate situation; sabotaging an aircraft, a business, or threats of any kind are still illegal acts and can be punished as such, regardless of the context.


Incidents should be discussed and compensation negotiated in a businesslike manner, hopefully through a third party such as an insurance provider, to keep the emotions at bay.


Where do we go from here? What could we possibly change?


Different philosophies often don't mix. These two sides of the coin are quite similar. Organic farmers want us to keep our distance and we would love to do so, except for one roadblock... we don't know where you are.


As absurd as it sounds, there is no public database of organic fields or farms in Canada!


While attempting to do our due diligence, we may attempt to contact the owners of neighboring fields from application sites, but this requires no less then some detective work in some cases; if the farmer booking the work does not have the neighbor's contact information, we have to try to find it for ourselves in an attempt to contact them about any concerns, which sometimes proves impossible, and is often one of the holes in the "Swiss cheese" that allow for the situation to escalate to the point where spray drifting on organic fields can occur.


When contacting the Canadian Organic Growers association for information on mapping or contact information of local organic growers, we are, understandably so, hitting a wall when it comes to the protection of privacy acts that do not allow them to share personal information without consent. We can not demand they share their list, making it all the more difficult to track the sensitive areas we are so desperately trying to avoid.


The most incredible advancement we can make towards eliminating the risk of unwanted application on organic commodities would be to create a master map of organically certified fields, accessible to the public. This list could be as simple as a county-grouped list of GPS coordinates or land locations, or as sophisticated as a map created within a Google Earth context, or transposable with popular flight planning software like Foreflight or Flight Plan Online so that we may map them as obstacles or sensitive areas, and book/perform our work accordingly, and even open up the ability to communicate with the organic farmer in question for warning and information sharing. Everyone enjoys being able to receive prior notice for peace of mind!


Until such a master map exists, I encourage organic growers to communicate with their local application companies, ground or aerial, to map their sensitive crops in order to avoid them as best we can, to observe appropriate buffers, and to make the best possible decisions in planning work in the area or on adjacent fields.


It is important for everyone in agriculture to go back to basics and remember that, despite taking different roads to get there, our common goal is to put food on the table.


Let us work together, or in parallel, in achieving this goal with as few hiccups as possible!