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.