Gardening, away from drifting pesticides
We live in a hilly place, naturally forested enough that an unmowed field will turn to brush, then pines, then mixed woods within a decade.
Where we live, you have to work hard to keep a field. My husband does some of that work, haying some of the little fields around us. That gives us some fodder for our animals and helps the neighbors keep some land from growing to forest.
This place is not considered good agricultural land, but it’s ideal for us. In fact, we moved to the Adirondack foothills on purpose to garden, just because it’s not prime for agriculture.
Commercial agriculture prefers wide open spaces, where one crop can be planted on vast acreage, and huge tractors can plow, plant, apply pesticides and harvest — all without having to turn around a lot. But if you want to grow without pesticides, you’re better off living away from big ag. Because even if you don’t spray yourself, winds across open fields will spread someone else’s pesticides over your home.
I know people who’ve made “back to nature” moves to rural areas, taking over small abandoned farms or moving next to a working farm. One family balked when their neighbor began spraying a field prior to planting, worrying about their water and their kids.
I didn’t feel that sympathetic — who moves to a house next to a cornfield not expecting to be sprayed? That said, planting a nice hedgerow of some fast-growing bushy plants would be helpful, at least in keeping some of the herbicide out of their garden.
Another family I met had to wait years before they could plant on a former cornfield, which was so saturated with herbicides that nothing else would grow. They bush-hogged it once a year, keeping it clear until they could grow oats and buckwheat, which they plowed back in to continue their reclamation project.
We took the avoidance route, choosing a place that historically had small fields surrounded by stone walls and hedgerows, fields designed to be worked by draft animals and small tractors. Most of the remaining fields are either fallow or used to pasture a couple of horses or a few beef cattle.
Of course, we were more interested in working toward self-sufficiency than going into agribusiness. We mainly want to feed our family good and wholesome food, and maybe have a little surplus to share or to sell.
Following the lay of the land, my husband started raising draft animals himself, and accumulating small, aged tractors. The animals added nutrients to the soil, and one garden soon became two, then five.
Family and friends still don’t have a clue about why we do what we do. “Why are you growing potatoes when potatoes are so cheap?” a friend once asked, and the answer is that potatoes are good at absorbing whatever pesticides they are grown in, and that commercial potatoes are also run through a fungicide bath before being bagged. Who wants to feed that to your kids?
We garden the way we garden because we think it makes for healthy kids and a healthier planet.
Besides, my husband is overly sensitive to pesticides. This probably stems in large part from some dumb antics he performed as a dumb kid. He and his buddies in his Florida neighborhood — a new development built in agricultural land — thought it was great fun to run under the crop dusters. I wouldn’t be surprised if his overexposure to malathion and pyrethrum explains his weakened immune system.
It also might explain the asthma attack he had last week when someone sprayed Raid on some swarming ants, right at our feet as we were sitting on a patio.
My husband jumped up, rounded up the kids, mumbled something to our hosts about wanting to beat the storm and got into the car as his bronchioles started constricting. A week later, he’s still coughing.
He vowed to never leave home again.
Of course, there’s no way to avoid all the toxins in the world. And I know there are times when pesticides are absolutely necessary. Sometimes pest invasions can be dangerous, and you need to do whatever it takes to rid an area of them. (I’m not sure ants fall into that category and, besides, proper pesticide application suggests you move the humans before spraying.)
We don’t try to tell other people what to do or how to live. But we try our best in our own lives to do what we can to avoid toxins.
And it works for us. We find we are able to grow lots of food without using any herbicides, insecticides or chemical fertilizers. We find we’ve been able to live with our level of mosquitoes and black flies, using a spritz of eucalyptus-lemon oil for relief. We tolerate the ants, but we do have a pesticide we spray on the oxen when the stable flies get so bad it drives them to distraction.
“It’s not like were purists,” my husband said last week, when he was still wheezing.
But we try to do the best we can. Because if we can raise healthy kids, we’d sure like to leave them a healthy planet to live on.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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