Bitter Harvest In Sperryville

Unmarketable tomatoes ripen on vines affected by contaminated mulch at Waterpenny Farm.
Unmarketable tomatoes ripen on vines affected by contaminated mulch at Waterpenny Farm. (By Margaret Thomas For The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

For farmer Rachel Bynum and her 2-year-old son, Nicholas, the afternoon of June 2 started as an idyllic occasion. For the first time, mother and child harvested vegetables together at the family's Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Va. Bynum and her husband, Eric Plaksin, both 33, sell the pesticide-free produce from their 10 acres of fields at farmers markets, through a CSA program and right from the barn.

As she waded into the otherwise healthy-looking zucchini vines, Bynum noticed that many of the plants had an odd windblown appearance with uncharacteristic curling leaves. "It looked like maybe the plants were getting too much water," says Bynum, who has farmed in western Rappahannock County for eight years. The previous night there had been a much-needed rain, and the couple was also using a drip irrigation system, with water pumped from the nearby Thornton River.

As it turns out, the problem wasn't too much water. And the trouble quickly spread to the tomatoes and eggplant. But it would be two weeks before Bynum and Plaksin received the test results confirming the culprit: They had unwittingly poisoned half of their farm fields by using a hay mulch that was contaminated with a powerful herbicide.

For Bynum, who is expecting a second child in the fall, walking about the sloping acreage in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is now "a farm tour of doom."

County agriculture extension agent Kenner Love was the first person brought in to assess the problem. "We didn't expect herbicides because they don't use them," says Love, who has worked with area farmers for 12 years. "I suspected a virus, but there was no yellowing of leaves." He sent samples of the tomato, squash and potato plants from Waterpenny to Virginia Tech for analysis. The results: The plants were infected with a "broadleaf plant growth regulator" -- an herbicide.

But at Waterpenny, they still had no idea where the poison was coming from. Because the affected fields were fairly sheltered, they ruled out drifting sprays from neighboring farms. The farmers zeroed in on purchased hay as the source when they recognized that the plants without mulch were thriving. Hay, which can be one species of plant, such as alfalfa, or a combination of plants cut from open fields, is normally used as feed and bedding for animals, not as a mulch for vegetables. At Waterpenny it was used to suppress weeds and conserve moisture.

Without hesitation, the farmer who sold them 120 round bales said that they might contain hay from fields that were sprayed with the herbicide Grazon. He didn't know any consequences from its use. Grazon, a product of Dow AgroSciences, is sprayed on fields to kill undesirable broadleaf plants; it contains picloram, a plant growth regulator.

Bynum and Plaksin were not aware that herbicides were used in hay production.

Dow AgroSciences spokesman Garry Hamlin points out that the Grazon label states in bold type: "Do not use grass or hay from treated areas or manure from animals for composting or mulching of desirable susceptible broadleaf plants." Selling produce contaminated with picloram, which is not rated for human consumption, is illegal. The company cannot say when the couple can plant again in the poisoned fields without knowing how much residue there is in the soil.

As at all CSA (community-supported agriculture) farms, many different crops are grown at Waterpenny to satisfy customers who pay an annual membership fee for a share of the harvest. And it is unusual for a CSA farm to have herbicide damage because most use organic methods.

"Usually it's a hailstorm that might just kill the broccoli, part of the crop. It would be more common to have a drought or flooding, insect infestation or crop viruses," says Guillermo Payet, president of Local Harvest, a national organization that provides a directory for farmers and consumers to find each other.

Bynum and Plaksin's conservative estimate is that they have lost 12,000 plants with a harvest worth $80,000. Thus far, the un-mulched fields, making up about half of the acreage, do not appear to be contaminated. There will be broccoli, some root crops, beans, onions, garlic and cabbage. Because the fields are separated by 12-foot-wide grassy areas, the likelihood of contamination to the whole farm is low. Planting more tomatoes and melons in uncontaminated fields is still to come this season.

They are working with the hay farmer, who has insurance, to determine compensation for their losses. When word got out in the close-knit farming community, 60 people, including many of the couple's 150 CSA shareholders, started the unpleasant process of removing the 50,000 pounds of wet hay from 3.5 acres. Results from soil tests on the extent of the contamination are still to come.

For this season, they are canceling two months of their CSA deliveries and offering customers a partial or total refund of the full share price of $475 for 21 weeks. For the time being they will no longer sell at the farmers market in Warrenton. But they will continue to sell a limited number of vegetables from the un-mulched fields at markets in Takoma Park and Charlottesville.

Unanswered questions remain about the long-term prospects for the farm. Once all the contaminated hay is out of the fields, they will test and retest the soil for traces of the chemical. "But I don't think we have enough information yet, and we are reading everything we can, contacting pesticide watch groups," Bynum says. "We may have to retire those fields for a few seasons."

Even though farmers have a typically small profit margin, and such a disaster would raise concerns about the farm's survival, Bynum says, "we are not scraping by, and this doesn't mean we'll stop farming."

Plaksin says that without the large CSA program to worry about, "we're looking at this as an opportunity to reevaluate what we're doing. Maybe we should be smaller. And we're learning about things like herbicides that we never knew about before."

Waterpenny Farm produce is available at Charlottesville City Market, First and Water streets, Saturdays, 7 a.m. to noon; Takoma Park Farmers Market, Carroll and Laurel avenues, Takoma Park, Sundays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and at the farm, 53 Waterpenny Lane, Sperryville, Va. 540-987-8567.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company