These Farmers Switched to Organic After Pesticides Made Them Sick
By Heather Callaghan, Editor
“Leave agriculture…” Doctor’s orders.
Although it’s been nearly 60 years since Silent Spring tried to warn the world of the scourge of DDT – most people to this day, treat all other pesticides as harmless. It’s a common sight in the deep South to see maintenance men with plastic tanks on their back, hosing ditches and school parking lots with adventurous doses of Roundup. Pesticides are egregiously treated as though they are as harmless as the water used to hydrate crops. Nothing could be further from the truth and unfortunately some people learn the harsh truth through loss of health or life.
Farmers in the U.S. and in France have a suicide rate of over twice as much as the general population. That statistic is no small potato given the the small percentage of people in farming relative to a country. Although I fell into writing about farming quite by accident, it turns out that the further I ventured down the rabbit hole, the more I learned the dark truth about the “farming side” of my family. Why they seemed to be racked with health and mental problems, even dying at much younger ages – from lung/breast cancer, heart attacks, suicide, thyroid disease, and substance-related illnesses.
Although the switch to organic could bring in more profit for a farm since there is more demand – sometimes it’s really a matter of life or death.
Ken Roseboro of Non-GMO Report recently journaled:
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.
“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.
Kate Mendenhall, director of the Organic Farmers Association said that the desire to stop farming with pesticides was a “global theme” among farmers she interviews worldwide for a thesis. Health concerns for themselves and their families, established health problems and also nervousness prompted farmers to make the switch.
More from the story:
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.”
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.”
Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path Foods said he’s heard many times in his organic inspection career “of stories about older farmers getting seriously ill or prematurely dying (due to pesticide-related illnesses).”
Roseboro chronicled that some of the younger farmers had farming fathers who died younger than other family members or barely survived a major health crisis.
Tim Raile, in the process of organic transition, lost his father to chronic leukemia at age 77 and believes that handling pesticides could be a culprit as Raile’s father believed them to be safe. Although the younger Raile used protective gear, he says that inevitably you do get sprayed.
Levi Lyle, also in organic transition, had a farming father who just barely survived stage 4 lung cancer and groin cancer. They still farm but Lyle says there was a lot his father couldn’t know about the toxicity at the time.
Glen Kadelbach says, “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.” He died of cancer in 2008, and Glen suspected the pesticide. He transitioned his Minnesota farm so that his children wouldn’t have to be exposed to the same potential hazards.
Read more of Roseboro’s report.
These are just a sampling of farmers who recognized a correlation between their career and its obvious hazards. Many people are not so lucky.
It’s time we get the word out! Maybe we should start with the farmers…
Image: Levi Lyle (right) transitioned his family’s farm to organic after his father Trent (right) overcame cancer. Photo by (c) Bill Tiedje, modified
Heather Callaghan is an independent researcher, writer, speaker and food freedom activist. She is the Editor and co-founder of NaturalBlaze as well as a certified Self-Referencing IITM Practitioner.
She has written over 1,000 articles on health, farming, medicine and food issues.