St. Lawrence County organic farmers concerned with highway dept. spraying
Saturday, August 3, 2019 - 8:38 am

Potsdam Farms pesticides: Daniel Martin, of Martin’s Farmstand, Potsdam, with sign. North Country Now photo by Cheryl Shumway.

BY MATT LINDSEY

North Country This Week

Some organic farmers in St. Lawrence County say highway crews have sprayed their land with pesticides and herbicides despite their requests that it not be done.

“This year the highway department sprayed my front lawn, too, not just the area from the road to the guardrails," said Melvin Martin of Martin's Farm Supply and Roofing. He, his brothers Timothy and Daniel, along with their father Luke Martin, operate farms that offer produce, farming supplies and feed.

Catherine Bennett of Bittersweet Farm in Heuvelton and Milkweed Tussock Tubers in DePeyster says she submitted required paperwork this year and her land was still sprayed.

She said she wants to see changes in regulations to protect people, the environment and our water-based tourism.

But at least one certified organic farmer says the county has always complied with his certification and desires to not have his land sprayed.

Daniel Kent of Kent Family Growers in Lisbon saw a county spray truck headed toward his property a couple years ago, but stopped the driver before they began applying the pesticide.

He said it was a mistake, noting it could have been something as simple as a new employee or paperwork error. “They are not out to get us,” he said, referring to county officials.

Certified organic farms can request not to be sprayed by submitting a letter and attached map, according to county Superintendent of Highways Donald Chambers. The only way an organic farm can be spared from spraying is to become certified, he said.

Pesticide and herbicide spraying is limited, Chambers said. “We are not doing whole roadsides,” he said, noting that spraying is primarily done around guiderails and road signs.

The Martin farm has not completed paperwork to get official certification as organic but strives to raise their crops without synthetic chemicals and pesticides and to use seeds and plants that are not genetically modified.

The Martins erected a sign this year requesting not to be sprayed. Legally, the sign means nothing. Their land was sprayed anyway.

County Trying to Accommodate

Superintendent Chambers said his department can’t simply honor “do not spray signs” and that caring for nearly 600 miles of road will likely lead to oversights.

“Doing the best we can,” he said. “We are doing our part to be good neighbors.”

Chambers said trimming roadsides completely manually is not practical. The county does do some upkeep around signage by mechanical means such as mowers and weed eaters.

He said spraying done along guiderails and sign bases is “limited application.”

Chambers said there are more than a dozen certified organic farms in the county that are on county roads. To complicate matters, a plot of organic farmland is not always on the same road. It can run along county routes, state highways, town roads and streets.

“However, the county is under no obligation not to spray within the right-of-way … the organic farmer must provide the buffer outside of the right-of-way,” he said.

Costs of Spraying

“Spraying has been found to be the most cost-effective,” said Chambers. The state Department of Transportation, as well as “railroad companies and various other entities utilize spraying in the U.S. and internationally, it is standard operating procedure,” he said.

Kent Family Growers, 1301 CR 31, produces a variety of vegetables for sale in several venues throughout the North Country and state. They earned organic certification from NOFA-NY, LLC.

Kent does not think spraying herbicides and pesticides is necessary.

“Mowing covers it well … you don’t have to kill every blade of grass,” Kent said.

He believes mowing is more cost-effective than spraying. He cites the cost to pay a driver and an employee to spray, versus paying one person to mow.

Kent also believes savings would be realized if pesticides and herbicides did not need to be purchased.

Spraying can impact farmers’ income and could impact an organic farm’s status. Getting sprayed impacts profits, makes a divide in the community and presents ecological issues, Bennett, of Bittersweet Farms, said.

“If I get tested and the results show pesticides, we could be fined,” she said.

She said she called county officials about the issue and they were understanding. However, she said her signs are “not taken seriously and make no difference.”

She said other certified organic farmers she has spoken to locally get sprayed. “No one is knocking on doors and asking, being courteous.”

Farmers Feel Invisible

“People don’t realize we exist,” Bennett said. She said St. Lawrence County has one of the highest numbers of organic farms in the state.

Bennett wants change and thinks that individual property owners can take care of their own signage. “There are other towns and cities that do not spray,” she said. She wonders why St. Lawrence County can’t join them.

Bennett wants the community to work together to solve this issue – through discussion. ‘This is a problem – let’s fix it now.”

Daniel Martin said he wants the highway department to “respect organic farms and respect the environment as much as possible ... including not spraying near bridges with water under it.”

“Eight years now I haven’t used even organic pesticides,” Daniel said. “I have less pest damage now than I did when I used organic pesticides.”

He has developed many techniques that he says work better than pesticides, including planting sacrificial crops, ground cover, and selective mowing.

“Whatever I can do to help others succeed with managing their environment I will do,” Daniel said.

The Martins have no plans to become a certified organic farm. “ I don't think it will make any difference,” Daniel Martin said.

The day pesticide was applied near the Martin’s land, Melvin and his father Luke witnessed what they believe was a honeybee with colony collapse disorder (CCP). CCP is the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees.

“It looked like a normal healthy bee, except it was turning this way and that, upside down and right side up, and the one wing was at a different angle than the other,” Melvin said.

Melvin says change is needed. “If we don’t, our children may be the next to be spinning circles in the driveway, and never come home.”