Spoiled soil 

Tainted compost devastates Bitterroot crops

Sandy Gates calls them "mutant potatoes." Some toxic invasion of the Bitterroot Valley's soil warped the veggies, and Gates refuses to sell them at her Clearwater Farm booth at the Hamilton Farmers' Market. She has no idea how the potatoes will taste, or whether they'd harm her customers.

"They have these weird kind of brown, warty-looking things," Gates says. "We decided we'll just get rid of those potatoes. We won't let humans have them."

click to enlarge Clearwater Farm owner Sandy Gates suffered crop losses this summer when her Bitterroot Valley potato plot was contaminated with the herbicide Milestone. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Clearwater Farm owner Sandy Gates suffered crop losses this summer when her Bitterroot Valley potato plot was contaminated with the herbicide Milestone.

Spoiled soil has growers from Lolo to Hamilton waving the proverbial pitchfork in frustration. Tests of samples turned in to county and state agencies in June and July link a number of cases of malformed crops to chemical contamination. At least one case involves local manure tainted by the controversial herbicide Milestone, and there's nothing growers can do to reclaim what's ruined.

"Some of the testing that's been done, they're saying that even three years later they're seeing effects in crops," says Gates, who owns a smattering of farming plots throughout the valley. "Unfortunately, that one particular area [of our soil], we probably won't ever grow there again. We've lost everything we would have grown there."

The Bitterroot's soil woes relate in part to nationwide issues with the chemical aminopyralid, a key component of Milestone. The herbicide is commonly used to kill broadleaf weeds in hay fields. Substantial traces of aminopyralid then show up in garden composts derived from animal manure and urban grass clippings, devastating broadleaf crops like tomatoes, potatoes and beans.

"It's an attack," says Jill Davies, director of Victor-based nonprofit Sustainable Living Systems. "Either personally or inadvertently–it doesn't matter. It's still an attack on local food systems, on people's ability to grow their own food."

Ravalli County Extension Officer Bobbie Roos says there's no single culprit in the region's soil contamination. Compost, mulches, straight manure or homegrown grass clippings could all lie at the roots of the 35 cases she's filed this year. Roos even refuses to pin all of the Bitterroot's problems on a single herbicide.

"A high majority, when we start discussing practices used, show it's not always compost," Roos says.

Laura Craig, manager of the Hamilton Farmers' Market, agrees to a point. There's always room for doubt when it comes to stunted tomatoes, she says, but Milestone has a colored history in the international gardening community. Thousands of farmers in the United Kingdom lost crops to aminopyralid contamination last summer, prompting the British government to ban Milestone. Milestone-producer Dow AgroSciences has reportedly experienced similar difficulties with other herbicides in the past.

"It twists the stalks, makes the leaves close up and form into clubs," Davies says. "They don't produce like a normal plant, and who'd want to eat it?"

Ag-specialist Sarah Holden with the Montana Department of Agriculture counters the flap over Milestone, saying aminopyralid is just one of a number of chemicals that unintentionally make it into local soil. Holden says people often don't pay attention to pesticide labels, or they accept manure from friendly neighbors without knowing what chemicals the animals were exposed to.

"People need to start reading their pesticide labels," Holden says. "The Milestone label [actually a nine-page booklet] on page three has a whole strip of manure and compost restrictions."

Frustrations have spawned a witch-hunt of sorts in the Bitterroot. A number of growers point to dairy cow manure from a local farmer as the source of their malformed crops. Clearwater Farm purchased the manure from Wally Weber at the farmers' market this May and applied it exclusively to the farm's potato patch. The resulting deformities, as Gates described them, put a serious dent in the farm's business.

"The person that we got this particular compost from assured me it was organic compost because, although I'm not certified by choice, I'm a 100 percent organic grower," Gates says. "I try to check out my sources for things like that. I would never have bought that product if I'd known there was any suspicion that was going on."

Gates adds that while Clearwater Farm won't be able to plant in the affected potato plots for years to come, certified organic growers could lose costly certification if any chemicals show up in their soil.

"The horrible thing is, if you're going for your organic certification as a farmer that's going to sell retail and wholesale, it totally wipes out your certification," Craig says. "Some people, to get that through the feds, you have to pay thousands of dollars for that honor."

Holden, the state's ag-specialist, confirms that the only verified case of aminopyralid was on Weber's farm. She contends Weber had no idea his manure was tainted. He removed his manure from the market as soon as test results came in. Weber did not respond to phone calls seeking comment for this story.

"We're not exactly sure how it got into his manure," Holden says. "But we're thinking it was from a noxious weed application that was done following label directions and everything. He just didn't realize it was in his manure. It was an honest mistake."

Sustainable Living Systems and the Hamilton Farmers' Market meet August 27 with local growers to establish the extent of Milestone damage, and Holden plans to use the event to launch a series of outreach programs building awareness of herbicide dangers.

"Hopefully we can get this information out there to say, 'Look, these products you're using are residual,'" Holden says. "You have to make sure you're following those labels."

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