Some farmers transition to organic production to earn premium prices. Others switch to make their farms more sustainable. But for some farmers, transitioning to organic is a necessary way to protect their family’s health—and even save their lives.
Blaine Schmaltz, who farms in Rugby, North Dakota, is a good example. One day in 1993, Schmaltz was spraying an herbicide on his field. He stopped to check the level in the sprayer tank. While looking inside, he lost control of his legs and passed out. He was later hospitalized for several months with asthma, muscle aches and pains, and insomnia. A doctor diagnosed him with “occupational asthma.”
“The doctor told me to leave agriculture,” Schmaltz says. “He said, ‘if you don’t, you probably won’t live 10 years.’”
While recovering, Schmaltz read about organic farming and decided to transition because he wanted to continue farming. The next spring he started the transition, and over time his symptoms disappeared. Today, Schmaltz continues to grow certified organic wheat, beans, flax, and other specialty grains.
“I didn’t switch to organic farming for the money or a utopian dream,” he says. “I did it for myself and my family in order to stay in agriculture.”
Common Story for Many Farmers
Blaine Schmaltz’s experience is not uncommon. Other farmers in the U.S. and Canada have switched to organic because of a health crisis they had—or even the death of a family member—due to pesticide exposure.
“It’s definitely a common story for many farmers,” says Kate Mendenhall, director of the Organic Farmers Association.
For her Master’s degree thesis at Goddard College, Mendenhall interviewed farmers worldwide who transitioned to organic, and she found that health risks from pesticide exposure were a major concern. “That was a theme globally,” she says. “Farmers had problems with pesticides or were nervous about them and didn’t want them around their children. Some had prior health problems from pesticides.”
In 2017, Oregon State University and organic certifier Oregon Tilth released a report, “Breaking New Ground: Farmer Perspectives on Organic Transition,” which found 86 percent of farmers surveyed said that concern about health was one of the main motivations for transitioning.
‘My husband was slowly being poisoned’
Klaas Martens also switched to organic because of bad reactions to pesticides. Martens, who farms in Penn Yan, New York, suffered headaches, nausea, and temporary paralysis of his right arm from exposure to 2,4-D herbicide and other chemicals.
Martens dreaded spraying pesticides. “I knew I would feel rotten for a month after,” he says. His wife, Mary-Howell, would later write: “My husband was slowly being poisoned.”
In 1991, the Martens decided to transition to organic because, according to Mary-Howell, they hated what pesticides “might be doing to us, our family, our land, and our environment.” The Martens have been farming organically ever since and operate Lakeview Organic Grain, which supplies organic feed, grains, and seeds.
Saskatchewan farmer Gus Zelinski transitioned his farm after being hospitalized for pesticide poisoning. He inhaled the herbicide Buctril-M after it circulated into the air of his tractor cabin while he was spraying his field. “I couldn’t get my breath; I was just about choking,” Zelinski says. He was hospitalized for a week. “The doctor said I was lucky,” he says.
His wife Dolores says the incident led Gus to convert the farm to organic. But other farmers in their area weren’t as fortunate as Gus. “There are a few farmers in our area who have passed on because of chemicals. But that’s not spoken about in farming communities,” she says.
Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path Foods, says he used to heard stories like this often when he did organic inspections. “There were lots of stories about older farmers getting seriously ill or prematurely dying [due to pesticide-related illnesses],” he says.
‘I didn’t want my kids exposed to the chemicals’
In some cases, younger farmers switched to organic after their fathers experienced health problems from pesticide exposure. Tim Raile, who is transitioning his 8500-acre farm in St. Francis, Kansas, says his father had used 2,4-D and malathion. He died of chronic leukemia at age 77 when others in his family had lived longer.
“I really believe that’s one reason his life was shortened,” Raile says. “He was not that careful (handling pesticides) and was told they were safe back in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Raile isn’t surprised that farmers have switched to organic because of concerns with pesticides. “It’s quite common, and was a consideration for me, for sure. I’ve tried to protect myself using protective clothing, but inevitably you get sprayed and eventually it will cause problems,” he says.
Levi Lyle is transitioning his family’s farm in Keota, Iowa to organic, and his father’s cancer was a deciding factor. “My passion for organic farming was inspired by my dad overcoming cancer,” Levi said in an interview with Iowa Farmer Today. In the early 1980s, Levi’s father Trent developed stage-4 lung cancer as well as groin cancer.
“He always wondered where the cancer came from,” Levi says. “There’s much we know about toxicity we add to our fields and so much we don’t know.”
Fortunately, Trent overcame his illness and still farms. Glen Kadelbach’s father wasn’t as lucky. He died of cancer in 2008, and Glen decided to transition the family’s farm in Hutchinson, Minnesota to organic shortly after his father’s death.
“My dad had gotten splashed with Lasso herbicide 20 years before and he was told he would eventually get cancer. He had prostate cancer and that turned to bone cancer,” Kadelbach says. While Glen can’t be completely sure the pesticide exposure caused his father’s illness, he says it was reason enough for him to go organic. “I didn’t want my kids exposed to the chemicals,” he says.
‘Public health train wreck’
Farmers Blaine Schmaltz, Klaas Martens, and Gus Zelinski all cited herbicides as the cause of their health problems. What’s worse is that herbicide-related health problems are likely to increase for farmers and even the public, according to Charles Benbrook, visiting scholar at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University.
As resistance to glyphosate—the world’s most widely used herbicide—increases, global herbicide use is rising alongside it, Benbrook said. Encouraged by companies like Monsanto and Dow, farmers are escalating the war on weeds by using older, more toxic herbicides such as dicamba and 2,4-D to kill glyphosate-resistant weeds.
“The concern is the amount of herbicides used in the next five to 10 years is going to constitute the largest increase in U.S. history,” Benbrook says, who also notes that level of herbicide use increase should require action from public health agencies and regulators, but adds there is no effort to study the human health impacts of the chemicals. “This is a public health train wreck that no one has the tools, the motivation, or the ability to turn around. The end game will be very costly.”
Those who have made the transition to organic appear to have no regrets. “I [was] so anxious to get rid of the chemicals. I haven’t looked back,” says Raile.
“If I can reduce herbicide use by 20 percent, then reduce another 20 percent, in a few years I hope to eliminate it all. It’s a clear path for me,” says Lyle.
Without the pesticides, Mary-Howell Martens adds, “The farm is a safe place.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Organic & Non-GMO Report, and is reprinted with permission.
Top photo: Tim Raile (right) and his son Michael (left) holdling his own son, looking over fields they are transitioning to organic.