Drifting toward answers on lost crops

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

If you shop with any regularity at the Abbondanza stall at the farmers’ market, you might have noticed some gaps in their inventory this fall. Dried beans and winter squash are mostly what Shanan Olson, co-owner, says people have commented on missing. They ask why, and she’s not sure how to reply. Pesticide drift on their organic-certified farm in 2010 cost most of their fall harvest, a $250,000 loss. At least, that’s what they can piece together. What really happened to their crop has been a complicated puzzle to solve.

Rich Pecoraro, co-owner of Abbondanza, can recall the details of that string of days in late September 2010 down to the phase of the moon, the direction of the breeze and the overnight temperature.

The elements and the geography of their farm, which lays in a bit of a bowl, formed what Olson describes as a perfect storm. And somehow, it seems those elements conspired to carry a cloud of pesticide over most of the 40 acres of the Abbondanza farm. After a Friday aerial spraying at a neighboring farm, Pecoraro went out to his fields on Monday, and Olson recalls him coming back in and declaring, “I’ve ruined all the greens.”

“I laughed and said, ‘Well, it’s the first time you’ve done that,’” she says. “Then it got really serious.”

Pecoraro, a farmer with 35 years of experience and one of the founding members of Seeds of Change, had never seen the spots that were plaguing his spinach, lettuce, beets, cucumbers, squash, Chinese cabbages, arugula and Asian vegetables.

“It was everywhere. It was all over,” he says. “It was right up to the front door, on the house plants.”

Even the lilac bushes outside showed spots, Olson says.

At first, Pecoraro thought it was his fault. He called the Colorado State University extension agent and friends and fellow farmers to come look and tell him what he did wrong. One of the friends who came to look quickly asked, “Where are the sunflowers?” About the same time, samples the CSU extension agent had taken came back from the plant pathology lab. The technicians said the substance affecting the plants wasn’t even biological. The substance was an aerosol.

On Friday, a busy day at the farm spent collecting vegetables for the weekend farmers markets, Olson and Pecoraro had noticed a plane flying over neighboring fields. A late-season plane in late morning stuck out, they say.

They suspect that the substance that wiped out their harvest and nearly cost the family their farm is a drying herbicide called Sharpen that is sprayed on sunflower crops to kill back the plants, deterring birds and making harvest of the seeds easier. It’s a quickly evaporating substance designed to be used in a lethal dose within a week of when people will be in the field harvesting the sunflowers. Because of how quickly it dries, it’s mostly gone within 24 hours, and several days had passed before samples were taken from the Abbondanza fields.

Possibly as a result of this delay, lab test results didn’t show Sharpen, just the much more common glyphosate, or Roundup.

“We lost our whole crop. Everything was deemed unsellable,” Pecoraro says. “Our organic certification was jeopardized.”

They’ve spent much of the last 14 months trying to find answers, and failing to get any.

Olson says she’s heard a lot of rumors about what happened to Abbondanza, including one that the county paid them off to keep quiet. It’s just not true, she says.

No answer has been reached, and no restitution has been paid. They took out a $75,000 loan last December to pay off bills as they went seven months without an income. If the drift could be pinned to a farm, that farmer’s insurance would be required to cover the lost revenue. But that’s looking unlikely. Boulder County filed a claim with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, but their investigation has not been able to prove that pesticide drift occurred.

“I genuinely don’t believe anybody intentionally did harm to us,” Olson says. “However, where I come from, if you do something that harms your neighbor, you figure it out.”

Just getting the answer of what was in the tank of the aerial plane that sprayed near their organic farm was a struggle, and it took days to get anyone from the farm using the desiccant, who would know what its effects on plants look like, to come to the farm.

“I just want answers. I think we’re starting to feel victimized that the truth isn’t out there,” Olson says. “I don’t think the state of Colorado has my back. I don’t think the county has my back. I don’t think anybody has my back.”

The problem, she says, is systematic of a larger issue. “I don’t believe they meant it,” Olson says of the farmer who laid down whatever chemical killed their crops. “I believe it’s a nasty consequence of the way we choose to grow food.”

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