Chert Hollow Farm sits nestled between rows of tall trees and a nearby stream in central Missouri. Eric and Joanna Reuter have been running the organic farm since 2006. That means they don't plant genetically modified crops and can only use a few approved kinds of chemicals and fertilizers.
"We've traditionally raised about an acre and a half of pretty intensively managed produce, so it's a very productive acre and a half," Eric Reuter says.
Their neighbors grow acres of conventional corn and soybeans, and they mostly got along. That is until one July evening in 2014. Joanna Reuter was transplanting some broccoli when a sound caught her attention.
"I basically heard this loud noise," she says. "It was coming north to south, and I basically yelled, 'What the 'beep' is that?' "
They spotted a crop duster passing unusually close to their property. Shortly after experiencing headaches and irritation, they knew the wind had blown something chemical onto their land. Without knowing what it was, they were left in the lurch, with a big asterisk on the authenticity of their organic crops.
"We were concerned about how do we properly market ourselves, because we feel very strongly about openness and honesty," Eric Reuter says. "We felt a little odd about marketing farm shares and such for the next year as a sustainable, chemical-free farm."
They've opted not to sell their produce this year and hope the contaminated soil will rebound for next year. It's a big hit for their small business.
And for the crop duster? He received a warning letter. The farm next door did not respond to my requests for an interview.
"We're more susceptible to that kind of contamination than we thought," Eric Reuter says. "And that raises the stakes significantly for a farm like ours."
In the U.S., farmers use nearly 900 million pounds of pesticides every year to protect their crops from weeds and insects. Sometimes those chemicals drift to neighboring property, which can ruin crops on organic farms.
Although conventional farms can also get hit with unwanted pesticides, it's the $40 billion organic industry that's most vulnerable. As more organic farms pop up, these kinds of disputes will only be more common.
Kaci Buhl of the National Pesticide Information Center says there's no clear picture of how common pesticide drift is for the nearly 20,000 organic farms nationwide.
"The data would get better, and possibly resource allocation would increase, if there was more consistent reporting," she says.
Each state's agency responsible for handling pesticide-drift investigations — typically, it's the state agriculture department or the equivalent — deals with the probes differently.
Missouri Department of Agriculture spokesperson Sarah Alsegar says the department does its best, but is sometimes limited by the turnaround time of lab analysis, as well as gathering records from the pesticide applicators in the region.
That's why the organic industry is pushing for national regulations that prioritize drift investigations and consider stricter penalties for negligent farms. Farmers say investigations into chemical drift can drag on for months, and penalties vary.
"Once we do have a federal approach to pesticide drift, I suspect we'll be a lot more coordinated in our responses, and potentially, have better prevention strategies and more timely reaction to events when they do occur," says Nate Lewis with the Organic Trade Association.
Lewis says that drift needs to remain on the forefront of policy efforts, especially as organic acreage grows and farmers become more aware of pesticide drift. Currently, there is no federal policy outlining pesticide drift investigations or recourse.
Paul Schlegel with the American Farm Bureau Federation says unless the drift problem escalates, the current state regulatory system that handles drift incidents works. The focus should be on improving education and drift-reduction technology.
"I think you would probably find in the organic sector as whole, there's a greater reluctance to accept pesticides as a whole," he says.
Ultimately, he says, pesticides are part of the food production landscape all farms just have to navigate.
Recently, organic farmer Margot McMillen was traipsing through her muddy farmland, about 25 miles from Chert Hollow. At her farm, called Terra Bella Farm in central Missouri, she grows all sorts of vegetables.
While scanning her crops after a recent rain, she noticed some possible pesticide damage on her grape vines.
"This curling of the leaf is real characteristic, and there's a real thinness of that leaf," she says, cradling the leaf in her hand. "To me they look like little fists (saying), 'Help, help.'"
McMillen is all too familiar with curled up foliage. She says in 2014, pesticide drift destroyed $25,000 worth of her tomatoes. The state agriculture department confirmed drift occurred, but couldn't identify the culprit.
Even if her contaminated produce had survived, it was no longer sellable as organic. Pesticide drift puts McMillen and much of the organic industry in a tough spot.
"It's so out of our hands," she says.
This year, she says, she's been forced to grow her plants "defensively." Large bushes now block the wind from the road. She moved crops over a hillcrest, away from other farms, and moved the tomatoes inside the greenhouse.
"Everybody (who) doesn't use [pesticides] is running into this problem," she says.
McMillen says she knows her farm is still vulnerable. She says a federal policy would help, but planting defensively — even through it's not foolproof — is the best she can do for now.
This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Organic farms take pride in growing food without industrial pesticides, but conventional farms in the U.S. apply 900 million pounds of pesticide to their crops each year. And sometimes those chemicals drift onto a nearby organic farm. Kristopher Husted of member station KBIA in Columbia, Mo., reports on the damage that pesticide drift can cause.
KRISTOPHER HUSTED: Margot McMillen grows organic crops on a few acres here in central Missouri. That means she doesn't plant genetically modified crops and can only use a few approved chemicals and fertilizers. Today, she's checking the tomato plants growing in her greenhouse, a place she'd rather not keep them.
MARGOT MCMILLEN: For the most part, tomatoes are an outdoor crop, you know? You don't plant them in your greenhouse, but we hope they're safer in here. We know they're safer in here.
HUSTED: Safe from pesticides applied on neighboring farms that drift in the wind away from their intended target. To protect her crops, she's been forced to grow her plants defensively, as she puts it. Large bushes now block the wind from the road. She moved crops over a crest, away from other farms, and the tomatoes grow inside the greenhouse.
MCMILLEN: Everybody that doesn't use the chemicals is running into this problem. And none of us want to go to some kind of a biotech tomato. We like our real tomatoes.
HUSTED: She says in 2014, pesticide drift destroyed $25,000 worth of her tomatoes. After a lengthy investigation, the state agriculture department confirmed drift occurred, but couldn't identify the culprit. Even if her contaminated produce had survived, it was no longer sellable as organic. Pesticide drift puts McMillen and much of the $40 billion organic industry in a tough spot.
MCMILLEN: It is so out of our hands.
HUSTED: Many in the organic industry are pushing for a federal policy that speeds up drift investigations and considers stricter penalties. Nate Lewis from the Organic Trade Association is optimistic a national standard will help.
NATE LEWIS: Once we do have a kind of a federal approach to pesticide drift, I suspect we'll be a lot more coordinated in our responses and potentially have better prevention strategies and more timely reaction to events when they do occur.
PAUL SCHLEGEL: We would not want to disrupt or overturn the existing regulatory system.
HUSTED: That's Paul Schlegel with the American Farm Bureau Federation. He says the current state regulatory system that handles drift incidents works. The focus should be on improving education and drift reduction technology. He says ultimately, pesticides are part of the food production landscape that 20,000 organic farms just have to navigate.
SCHLEGEL: I think you would probably find in organic sector as a whole, there's a greater reluctance to accept pesticides as a whole.
HUSTED: McMillen traipses through her muddy farmland to inspect the grape vines with help from Julie Wheeler.
MCMILLEN: You know, I think we have been hit again, Julie, 'cause look at that line - looks worse than usual.
HUSTED: She reaches for a grape leaf showing signs of pesticide damage.
MCMILLEN: This curling of the leaf is real characteristic, and then there's a - like, a real thinness to the - you can kind of see the thinness of that leaf. And to me they look like little fists - like - help, help.
HUSTED: McMillen says she knows her farm is still vulnerable. She says a federal policy would help, but planting defensively, even though it's not fool-proof, is the best she can do for now. For NPR News, I'm Kristopher Husted in Columbia.
RATH: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.