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May 8, 2002

Delayed fieldwork a recipe for spray drift problems, specialists say

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – When the skies eventually clear and farmers are able to proceed with fieldwork, they'll need to be careful not to fill the air with herbicides that could blow onto a neighbor's field or yard.

Ill-timed rainfall in April and early May has hindered many Indiana farmers from getting corn and soybeans planted. The pent-up frustration could cause producers to rush herbicide applications when the precipitation ends and fields dry. That could lead to unintended spray drift problems, said two Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service specialists.

"Farmers are under a lot of pressure to get things done, which means that when things break loose everybody's schedule is going to be the same," said Fred Whitford, coordinator of the Purdue Pesticide Program. "Every farmer is going to want to have his field sprayed by a commercial business or they're going to want to spray their property themselves, and they're going to do it immediately."

Weeds already are beginning to appear in fields, and farmers will want to knock them out with herbicides as soon as possible. But the same chemicals considered safe for use on row crops can cause serious damage to vegetable plots, fruit trees, vineyards and home landscapes if the wind carries them to surrounding land, said Bruce Bordelon, Purdue Extension grape and small fruits specialist.

"At this time of the year, with sensitive crops like grapes and tomatoes already being leafed out and planted in the ground, they're at their fastest growth phase and they're very sensitive to the 2, 4-D and dicamba-type growth regulator herbicides," Bordelon said. "Exposure at this time of the year through drift or volatility can cause shoot stunting and, in many cases, a dropping of the flower clusters, resulting in an almost complete loss of the crop for the season."

Damage can extend beyond a single crop year, Bordelon said.

"There can be some long-term damage," he said. "A direct drift application onto tomatoes or grapes might either kill the plants or set them back so that it might – in the case of grapes – take two or three years for those plants to grow normally again."

Spray drift occurs when herbicide droplets hang in the air and are blown acres, or sometimes miles, away from the application site. The problem is worse on humid, breezy days.

Laws permit farmers to treat their fields with herbicides in a responsible manner. The Office of the Indiana State Chemist regulates herbicide use and can fine farmers for spray drift violations. About 50 spray drift complaints are filed each year with the state chemist, Whitford said.

The applicator is liable in all cases, he said. A commercial applicator hired by a farmer to treat a field cannot pass the responsibility on to his client.

"This is really a private property rights issue," Whitford said. "In the state of Indiana we have the right to make applications on the property that we own, so a farmer can make those applications or can hire somebody to do it.

"On the other hand, we are responsible to protect somebody else's property. If you can imagine a fence line, whether it's a real fence line or imaginary fence line, once that spray crosses over then the commercial applicators are responsible for what they put out. The labels basically say, 'Don't drift.' Even if farmers pressure the commercial guys to make those applications, the commercial person is always responsible for their actions."

Surveys Whitford conducted with 2,000 farmers in 2001 show producers are aware of spray drift issues. More than one in 10 said they've had a property owner complain about spray drift, and a large majority conceded they'd applied herbicides in less-than-ideal conditions.

"About 13 percent of our farmers have experienced a drift complaint where they allegedly damaged somebody's property," Whitford said. "We've estimated that we're probably well in excess of a million dollars worth of property damage every year statewide.

"In the surveys, farmers understood that their neighbors had private property rights the same as they did. They told us that they would respond to phone calls when somebody alleged that they'd damaged their property, and that they understood that the best application is when the winds are not blowing toward other people's property. About 70 percent acknowledged that they'd made pesticide applications even when weather conditions were not favorable."

Farmers can reduce spray drift in many ways, including:

• Evaluating surrounding land and taking note of wells, homes, susceptible crops, gardens, landscape plants and sensitive neighbors.

• Selecting spray nozzles that produce large, heavier droplets that are less likely to drift.

• Lowering the spray boom and increasing the spray volume.

• Adding a drift control agent to the herbicide.

• Avoiding herbicide applications on days the wind is blowing toward sensitive crop fields or residential areas.

Farmers who receive spray drift complaints from neighbors are advised to respond immediately, gather information about and take photos of the alleged affected area and contact their insurance agent as soon as possible.

Fruit and vegetable growers have a role to play, as well, Bordelon said.

"Educating the applicators and the farmers around them is the best thing they can do," Bordelon said. "If everybody understands the potential for damage, I think that everyone will try to avoid having a problem. That's the main thing, to get out and talk to folks and try to be a good neighbor."

For more information on spray drift, read the Purdue Pesticide Programs Extension Bulletin No. PPP-51, "Stay on Target: Prevent Drift." The publication is available online.

Writer: Steve Leer, (765) 494-8415, sleer@purdue.edu

Sources: Fred Whitford, (765) 494-1284, whitford@btny.purdue.edu

Bruce Bordelon, (765) 494-8212; bordelon@hort.purdue.edu

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes, bforbes@aes.purdue.edu; http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/AgComm/public/agnews/

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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