The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 19, 2007


Are toxic pesticides acceptable on conservation lands?

At the October 9 Conservation Coffee, about 35 early risers explored an issue that is guaranteed to generate heat; namely, agricultural pesticide use on town-owned conservation land. The exchanges were lively, but the diverse group also displayed willingness to listen to each other.

Carlisle's cranberry harvest is underway. An assistant watches while cranberry grower Mark Duffy drives a beater over the flooded Cranberry Bog to knock the berries from the vines. (Photo by John Wals

Opening the discussion, Conservation Administrator Sylvia Willard explained that the topic had been chosen following presentation of a Land Stewardship Committee (LSC) report last June on pesticide use at the Cranberry Bog. At that time Allandale Farm Manager and former Conservation Commission member John Lee had suggested it would make a good subject for a future Coffee and later agreed to lead the discussion.

The speaker established his credentials and outlook immediately: "I'm an organic farmer Yes, I do spray I have a Pesticide Applicator's License and I plan to keep it However, the significant question should be, 'What do you spray?'" Noting that there is a significant organic armory available, he presented the issue as one of sustainability, of how Massachusetts can keep farmers on their land and assure them access to a reliable market.

As a commercial grower, he stated categorically that he, or any other farmer who depends on his crop for a living and finds that crop in danger of destruction, will use a pesticide to save it. However, he asserted equally firmly that he would use it as a last resort, choose it carefully and use only a substance approved for organic use. "We need to take from both paths [organic preferences and economic viability] if we are going to feed the world," he concluded.

LSC wants heightened awareness

LSC Chairman Warren Lyman summarized the findings offered in the Cranberry Bog report that had occasioned the meeting, a compendium of data on pesticide use at the bog, the risks it might involve and the regulations (or absence of same) that pertained to that use. He said the authors' major concern was the threat that might exist to members of the public who used the trails for hiking, walking dogs and riding horses. More specifically, they worried that those users were not made sufficiently aware of what was going on. It was, therefore, an issue of on-time notification when spraying was taking place and more complete year-end reporting on the specific substances being applied.

Lyman indicated that the farmers who presently lease conservation land are meeting their responsibilities under the regulations of both the Town of Carlisle and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "The law says that, as long as you apply it (an herbicide, insecticide or fungicide) according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) label on the container and have a Pesticide Applicator's License, you are in the clear." Reporting requirements are contained in Carlisle Conservation Commission (ConsCom) regulations. In closing Lyman stressed that broader questions about whether town-owned conservation land should be leased to a farmer and simultaneously regarded as a recreational facility for townspeople were not within the purview of his committee.

LSC member Judy Asarkov made it clear that, for her, the issue was more stark. Describing herself as a dedicated organic gardener, she indicated that she uses manure as fertilizer, rotates her crops and encourages beneficial insects. "I get good results," she continued, "I don't harm my neighbors or their animals I don't poison the water and I do think there's a serious issue here." Speaking less confrontationally, birder Tom Brownrigg asked the farmers and community gardeners present, "Is it really necessary to use insecticides that are toxic?"

Bog farmer stresses science

As the farmer and 20-year lease holder directly involved, Carlisle Cranberries President and Great Brook Farm State Park dairyman Mark Duffy responded that he had been accused of poisoning water before, "a charge that has never been confirmed." Lightening the atmosphere, he observed, "Incidentally, I produce more manure than anyone else around here."

Becoming serious again, Duffy explained that cranberries are a crop that requires a significant amount of insecticide. Whether to use organic or non-organic methods is not the issue, he insisted, "Science is the issue." He explained that he operates the bog using Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a set of standards originally developed at the University of Massachusettts designed to minimize the use of pesticides, select those that will do the job with the least risk to the environment, and specify acceptable methods of application. To ensure that those standards are strictly adhered to, Duffy hires an IPM consultant who pays weekly visits to assess the health and needs of the vines. Finally he reminded the assembly that, in the past, the bog had been leased briefly to an organic grower who had failed miserably. "When I took it over in 1987, the bog was neglected and almost unusable," he said.

The third audience member to comment was Delaine Williamson, co-chairman of Pesticide Awareness, a private Carlisle group that has been active over the past four or five years in gathering and disseminating information about the hazards of unregulated pesticide use on lawns, playgrounds and other public and private spaces. Williamson, in turn, declared, "If pesticides are being used on town-owned conservation lands, we have a right to know, so we can make up our own minds on whether to go there or not." She cited the organic farming operation at Hutchins Farm on Monument Street in Concord, and asked why a consumer should risk his or her health when it was not necessary.

Duffy pointed out that there have been warning signs at the bog and other agricultural lands for years, to inform the public about pesticide use. In addition, by order of the Conservation Commission, he posts temporary signs whenever toxic substances are being applied. Such materials are sprayed at night when bees are in their hives, and are aimed with great care. "No farmer wants to kill his resident pollinators," he reasoned. Also, if ConsCom should consider it practical to initiate further warnings, he would have no objection. Lyman noted that the new conservation land signs authorized at Town Meeting will provide more information about pesticide use, and LSC member Liz Carpenter suggested that people who are concerned have a responsibility to educate themselves.

Both Lee and Duffy reiterated their dedication to keeping farming in Massachusetts, and both again stressed that assuring a market for farmers' products is essential to success. (Duffy is presently a member of the Governor's Task Force looking for ways to make this possible). But, as Duffy asserted, "I can't sell buggy cranberries," and Lee, in turn, regretted that "I haven't yet developed a market for ears of corn with worms."

In the end, all parties agreed on one thing: the biggest culprits when it comes to using toxic herbicides and insecticides, to say nothing of super fertilizers, are homeowners with showplace lawns and gardens, and no idea of what they, or their landscapers, are putting on them.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito