The Control Age in Pesticides
In the 1930s, crop yields in the U.S. were comparable to those in India, England and Argentina. By the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. boasted the biggest farming economy in the world, and researchers point to better crop hybrids coupled with agricultural chemical use as the main factors in the explosion in productivity.
By the year 2000, the sheer number of agricultural chemicals registered with the U.S. government had grown from a few to over 21,000. Those products contained over 875 active ingredients. U.S. farmers were spending close to five percent of their total operating budgets on pesticides alone.
In 1960, the University of Nebraska Extension Service published a guide to all known “Chemicals that Control Weeds.” The guide was printed on one double-sided sheet of paper, 8½ by 24 inches long. In 2005, the “Guide to Weed Management in Nebraska was 168 pages long and covered everything from application rates for specific chemicals on specific crops to safety issues to maintenance of chemical sprayers.
The use of chemicals has continued to grow. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, farmers spent over $10 billion on agricultural chemicals that year. Ag chemicals include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and other pesticides. Herbicides were applied on over 226.2 million acres to kill weeds. Insecticides were applied on over 90.0 million acres to kill insect pests.
Chemical use varies by crop and the pressures of weeds and insects. In 2005, the percentage of corn acres that had herbicides applied ranged from 87 percent in Kansas to 100 percent in Kentucky, Minnesota and South Dakota. Herbicide use on soybeans was even higher. The lowest use of herbicides in soybean states was in North Carolina where 92 percent of the fields were treated. Most states were at 99 to 100 percent, including Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Virginia.
The 50s and 60s could be considered a Golden Age of chemical use in American agriculture. But beginning in the 70s, environmental laws and safety concerns began to constrain pesticide use.
The alternative to pesticide use was often a lot of manual labor, and the practice developed its own vocabulary. Heather Derr (left) remembers “roughing” – a word that seems to have been invented in central Nebraska – day after day on her father’s farm. “For those of you who don’t know what ‘roughing’ is, it’s when you walk the fields and chop the weeds that have gotten away,” she remembers. “We would get up about 4:00 [in the morning] and drive over so that you could be here in the cool. And we’d be done at 1:00 [p.m.] and we’d head back home. The freedom that gives you is just – you know, you’re 16 and you want to do everything everybody else is doing in the evenings, but you’ve got to make money in the day. So, there’s a freedom.”
But organic farmer Dave Vetter (right) says that his Dad was one of the first to adopt chemicals … and one of the first to drop them. “My dad was one of the first [in this area] after World War II to introduce some of what we call chemicals into agriculture,” Dave says. But his father was also reading organic farming magazines. “Dad’s probably a little better observer of what’s going on around him than those people. And he noticed in the early years … the impact on wildlife populations, on the birds, shifts in the insect populations… And he thought, ‘You’re telling me all this stuff only affects the target, but I’m seeing that it doesn’t.'” That’s when Dave and his father began their organic operation.