Quantcast
Insights
Levi Lyle (right) transitioned his family's farm to organic after his father Trent (right) overcame cancer. Bill Tiedje

Farmers Switched to Organic After Pesticides Made Them or Their Families Sick

Some farmers transition to organic production to earn premium prices paid for organic crops. Others switch to make their farms more sustainable. But for some farmers transitioning to organic is a necessity to save their health—and even their lives.


Blaine Schmaltz, who farms in Rugby, North Dakota, is a good example. One day in September 1993, Schmaltz was spraying an herbicide on his field. He stopped to check the level in the sprayer tank. Looking inside, he started to feel lame and then passed out. He was later hospitalized for several months with asthma, muscle aches and pains, and insomnia. A doctor diagnosed him as having "occupational asthma."

"The doctor told me to leave agriculture," Schmaltz said. "He said, 'if you don't you probably won't live 10 years.'"

While recovering, Schmaltz read about organic farming and decided to transition because he wanted to continue farming. The next spring he started the transition, and over time found it was the right choice. His symptoms disappeared.

Schmaltz continues to farm organically, growing wheat, edible beans, flax and other specialty grains.

"I didn't switch to organic farming for the money or a utopian dream," he said. "I did it for myself and my family in order to stay in agriculture."

"Common story for many farmers" ...

Blaine Schmaltz's experience is not uncommon. Other farmers in the U.S. and Canada have switched to organic because of a health crisis they had—or even the death of a family member—due to pesticide exposure.

"It's definitely a common story for many farmers," said Kate Mendenhall, director of the Organic Farmers Association, about farmers wanting to go organic because of concerns with pesticides.

Mendenhall's master's degree thesis at Goddard College involved interviewing farmers worldwide who transitioned to organic, and she found that pesticides were a major concern.

"That was a theme globally," she said. "Farmers had problems with pesticides or were nervous about them and didn't want them around their children. Some had prior health problems from pesticides." A 2017 report by Oregon State University and organic certifier Oregon Tilth, Breaking New Ground: Farmer Perspectives on Organic Transition, found that 86 percent of farmers surveyed said that concerns about health was one of the main motivations for transitioning.

"My husband was slowly being poisoned" ...

Klaas Martens also switched to organic because of bad reactions to pesticides. Martens, who farms in Penn Yan, New York, suffered headaches, nausea, and temporary paralysis of his right arm from exposure to 2,4-D herbicide and other chemicals.

Martens dreaded spraying pesticides. "I knew I would feel rotten for a month after," he said.

His wife, Mary-Howell, would later write: "My husband was slowly being poisoned."

In 1991, the Martens decided to transition to organic because, according to Mary-Howell, they hated what pesticides "might be doing to us, our family, our land, and our environment."

The Martens have been farming organically ever since and operate Lakeview Organic Grain, which supplies organic feed, grains and seeds.

Saskatchewan farmer Gus Zelinski transitioned to organic after being hospitalized for pesticide poisoning. He inhaled the herbicide Buctril-M after it circulated into the air of his tractor cabin while he was spraying his field.

"I couldn't get my breath; I was just about choking," Zelinski said.

He was hospitalized for a week. "The doctor said I was lucky," he said.

His wife Dolores said the incident led Gus to convert the farm to organic.

"We went with organic farming practices and didn't look back. We decided that health was more important than our pocketbook and using chemicals."

She said other farmers in their area weren't as fortunate as Gus.

"There are a few farmers in our area who have passed on because of chemicals. But that's not spoken about in farming communities."

According to Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature's Path Foods, stories like Gus Zelinski's are common.

"I can't tell you how many times I heard that in my (organic) inspection career. There were lots of stories about older farmers getting seriously ill or prematurely dying (due to pesticide-related illnesses)," he said.

"I didn't want my kids exposed to the chemicals" ...

In some cases, farmers switched to organic after their fathers experienced health problems from pesticide exposure. Tim Raile, who is transitioning his 8500-acre farm in St. Francis, Kansas to organic, said his father had used pesticides such as 2,4-D and malathion. He died of chronic leukemia at age 77 when others in his family had lived longer.

"I really believe that's one reason his life was shortened," Raile said. "He was not that careful (handling pesticides) and was told they were safe back in the 1960s and 1970s."

Raile isn't surprised that farmers have switched to organic because of concerns with pesticides.

"It's quite common, and was a consideration for me, for sure. I've tried to protect myself using protective clothing, but inevitably you get sprayed and eventually it will cause problems," he said.

Levi Lyle is transitioning his family's farm in Keota, Iowa to organic, and his father's cancer was a deciding factor.

"My passion for organic farming was inspired by my dad overcoming cancer," Levi said in an interview with Iowa Farmer Today.

In the early 1980s, Levi's father Trent developed stage 4 lung cancer as well as groin cancer.

"He always wondered where the cancer came from," Levi said. "There's much we know about toxicity we add to our fields and so much we don't know."

Fortunately, Trent overcame his illness and still farms.

Glen Kadelbach's father wasn't as lucky. He died of cancer in 2008, and Glen decided to transition the family's farm in Hutchinson, Minnesota to organic shortly after his father's death.

"My dad had gotten splashed with Lasso herbicide 20 years before and he was told he would eventually get cancer. He had prostate cancer and that turned to bone cancer," Kadelbach said.

While Glen can't be completely sure the pesticide exposure caused his father's cancer, he said it was reason enough for him to go organic.

"I didn't want my kids exposed to the chemicals," he said.

"Public health trainwreck" ...

Herbicides were cited as the cause of health problems for farmers like Blaine Schmaltz, Klaas Martens and Gus Zelinski. What's worse is that herbicide-related health problems are likely to increase for farmers and even the public, according to Charles Benbrook, visiting scholar at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University. This is because the amount of herbicides being used is accelerating due to weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide. Encouraged by companies like Monsanto and Dow, farmers are escalating the war on weeds by using older, more toxic herbicides such as dicamba and 2,4-D to kill glyphosate-resistant weeds.

"The concern is the amount of herbicides used in the next five to ten years is going to constitute the largest increase in U.S. history," Benbrook said.

Such an increase of herbicide use demands attention by public health agencies and regulators but Benbrook said there is no effort to study human health impacts of the chemicals.

"Herbicides are going to pose a greater risk to human health," he said. "This is a public health trainwreck that no one has the tools, the motivation, or the ability to turn around. The end game will be very costly."

The solution for established farmers like Blaine Schmaltz, Klaas Martens, and Gus Zelinski and for younger farmers like Tim Raile, Levi Lyle, and Glen Kadelbach is to transition to organic.

"I am so anxious to get rid of the chemicals. I haven't looked back," Raile said.

"If I can reduce herbicide use by 20 percent, then reduce another 20 percent, in a few years I hope to eliminate it all. It's a clear path for me," Levi Lyle said.

Without the pesticides, Mary-Howell Martens said, "The farm is a safe place."

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Climate
Joshua Tree National Park now has more unsafe ozone days than New York City. atramos / CC BY 2.0

Air Pollution in National Parks as Bad as 20 Largest U.S. Cities

A new study shows the importance of clean air regulations to prevent air pollution from reaching national parks.

A study published in Science Advances Wednesday found that, between 1990 and 2014, the ozone concentrations in 33 of the largest and most visited national parks were statistically indistinguishable from the ozone concentrations in the 20 largest U.S. cities.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Emilie Chen / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Against All Odds, Mountain Gorilla Numbers Are on the Rise

By Jason Bittel

The news coming out of East Africa's Virunga Mountains these days would have made the late (and legendary) conservationist Dian Fossey very happy. According to the most recent census, the mountain gorillas introduced to the world in Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey's book and the film about her work, have grown their ranks from 480 animals in 2010 to 604 as of June 2016. Add another couple hundred apes living in scattered habitats to the south, and their population as a whole totals more than 1,000. Believe it or not, this makes the mountain gorilla subspecies the only great apes known to be increasing in number.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Halliburton getting ready to frack in the Bakken formation, which underlies North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Joshua Doubek / CC BY-SA 3.0

Zinke’s Real Estate Deal With Halliburton Chair to Be Investigated

Ousted U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt isn't the only polluter-friendly Trump appointee with sketchy ethics.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
"From 1992 to 2016, heat killed 783 workers in the U.S. and seriously injured nearly 70,000, according to a new report on heat risks." InsideClimateNews / USDA

Protect Workers From Extreme Heat, Advocates Urge OSHA

A broad coalition of worker advocacy, public health and environmental groups on Tuesday called on the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create a workplace standard for heat stress.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health
San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Tjeerd Wiersma from Amsterdam, The Netherlands / CC BY 2.0

How Coca-Cola and Climate Change Created a Public Health Crisis in a Mexican Town

A lack of drinking water and a surplus of Coca-Cola are causing a public health crisis in the Mexican town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Some neighborhoods in the town only get running water a few times a week, so residents turn to soda, drinking more than half a gallon a day on average.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Plastic trash isn't safe for kids, whether human or bear. Kevin Morgans Wildlife Photography

Even Polar Bear Cubs Can’t Escape Plastic Pollution

By Allison Guy

Plastic bags are often stamped with an all-caps warning: This bag is not a toy. Unfortunately, polar bear moms don't have much control over their kids' playthings.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Insights
Sea level rise is a natural consequence of the warming of our planet. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

We Can’t Hide From Global Warming’s Consequences

Over the past few months, heat records have broken worldwide.

In early July, the temperature in Ouargla, Algeria, reached 51.3°C (124.34°F), the highest ever recorded in Africa! Temperatures in the eastern and southwestern U.S. and southeastern Canada have also hit record highs. In Montreal, people sweltered under temperatures of 36.6°C (97.88°F), the highest ever recorded there, as well as record-breaking extreme midnight heat and humidity, an unpleasant experience shared by people in Ottawa. Dozens of people have died from heat-related causes in Quebec alone.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Stacey_newman / Getty Images

More Than a Third of Schools Tested Have ‘Elevated Levels’ of Lead in Drinking Water

A troubling new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that more than a third of the nation's schools that tested their water for lead found "elevated levels" of the neurotoxin. But despite heightened concern in recent years about lead in drinking water, more than 40 percent of schools surveyed conducted no lead testing in 2016.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!