These Farmers Switched to Organic After Pesticides Made Their Families Sick

After seeing parents fall ill from cancer or die, many farmers are switching to organics to protect themselves and their children.


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.

Klaas Martens (left) with Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding at Cornell University.

Klaas Martens (left) with Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding at Cornell University.

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.”

Levi Lyle (right) transitioned his family’s farm to organic after his father Trent (right) overcame cancer. Photo by Bill Tiedje

Levi Lyle (right) transitioned his family’s farm to organic after his father Trent (left) overcame cancer. Photo by Bill Tiedje

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. 

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  1. Saturday, May 12th, 2018
    My father had a chemical accident with dimetholate for red legged earthmite and was unable to get out of bed to milk cows for 12 months. This prompted him to start making his own worm juice and working with natural rather than using chemicals for pest control. His father died of cancer before his time as well as my mother’s father were both farmers who handled chemicals.
    • sanjib kumar ray
      Sunday, June 24th, 2018
      Please do not get afraid of the Chemicals. There are some chemicals (organic / inorganic ) which are ecofriendly . We cannot live without taking help of those ecofriendly chemicals. The plants also. Ecological balance is a state found out and activated by the Nature. We cannot change it. But we can make our lives hastlefree if we abide by those easy methods of nature. But what is most surprising, some of us has found it easier / profitable to divert / change the natural methods. These wise people did not find that nature ( may be on a very very small part of the world) will get imbalanced. And the living beings will suffer as a result. It is not understandable why the scientists of that time , who were in a situation to become aware of those steps being taken by some very wise persons, say " Do not try to hit nature.It will hit back."
  2. Monday, May 14th, 2018
    Thanks for this critically important story about the harms of pesticide (including herbicide and fungicide) use on farmers. As a Registered Dietitian, I am at the receiving end of "feed the world" messages from agri-businesses. For example, we are told by the Produce for Better Health Foundation that all a consumer has to do is "just wash it" to rid our fruits and vegetables of pesticide residues. Missing is information about the harm to air and water quality, farm families, and birth defects and childhood cancers related to farmworker and rural community exposures. I am an advocate for organic food and farming systems for reasons far beyond our own personal plates. I invite readers to check out two important organizations - Beyond Pesticides, and the Pesticide Action Network of North America - to learn more about the impacts of pesticide use. Also, please tune in to Food Sleuth Radio, which helps amplify farmers' and physicians' voices about the full impacts of pesticide use.
  3. Thomas Laiser
    Wednesday, May 16th, 2018
    Is terrible story indeed! I think there is a need of strengthening campaign against these killers (promoters of conventional agriculture) while they always go forward to make super profit by destroying others. Instead, agro-ecology should be adopted as alternative for sustainable agriculture.
  4. Monday, May 21st, 2018
    I am glad to hear farmers speaking out about the dangers of pesticides. We consumers need to listen to those who know and want to spare themselves and their families.
  5. Monday, May 21st, 2018
    Some people don't know that pesticides do not come off by simply washing your fruits and vegetables under the faucet. They are resistant to water, so farmers don't need to respray them every time it rains. Kangen water devices are a healthy and eco-friendly solution to having healthy water and also produce a special strong alkaline water that is able to dissolve the pesticides. This water can emulsify them, so I soak my produce, even organic produce, in this water before cooking or eating the produce raw. You would be shocked to see the water change colors, although soaking the same produce in tap water would not show anything coming off. I have heard from farmers that even organic produce has certain pesticides sprayed on it, although they are less harmful than the conventional pesticides.
  6. Diane Saull
    Friday, June 8th, 2018
    Thank you for sharing your stories and reinforcing what I have always believed about pesticides...I eat a strictly organic diet of greens and other foods whenever possible...I'm spreading the word online about supporting organic farming...and urging others to switch to organic...

    I'm glad that these farmers are doing well...
  7. Tuesday, June 12th, 2018
    I truly hope that someday (sooner rather than later) more people realize that it's a bad idea to grow food with poisons, but the big chemical companies have a powerful marketing machine and a lot of influence.
  8. sanjib kumar ray
    Wednesday, June 20th, 2018
    Glen Kadelbach's father's cancer was definitely caused by pesticide/ herbicide / insecticide which were used in the farms , the produces of which were consumed by the citizens of the area. Not that since pesticide / herbicide has been stopped, so there will no more illness. The poisonous chemicals will show their effect for a long period. During that the produces should not be consumed by any human being/ animal / birds. The incident was of 1993. None have warned you to stop using poisonous chemicals on farms. It is astonishing. Anyway , better late than never, there is no requirement of using poisonous chemicals on farms. There are other easy ways which are cheap also. In this way we can get rid of illness permanently.
  9. Friday, July 20th, 2018
    organic farming is the way to go,Diabetes ,obesity,cancer is escalating
    and we are being poisoned slowly by the insecticides and chemicals