Those who know me know that I’m a proud citizen advocate. As a mom to three children and 3rd generation farmer, showing up in Salem is one of the only ways to protect my family from the onslaught of mandates and taxes considered by our state legislature. I consider it part of running my farm; showing up to speak out about the impacts of bad legislation is one of the ways that I help ensure that my family can continue to farm in the future.
The 2020 short session was no exception. A bill to ban chlorpyrifos, an insecticide that is used in Oregon on a number of specialty crops, was introduced this session. I, along with many other farmers and agriculturalists, showed up to testify against the pesticide ban in House Bill 4109.
During the public hearing in the Senate Environment Committee, Senator Floyd Prozanski asked a number of questions to the panelists, including me. Many of those questions stemmed from a letter that was submitted into testimony.
“I’m just trying to figure out, as you can imagine we get a lot of information….there is a letter here that’s signed by many people with PhDs, MS, etc., and they are talking about alternatives and it does note that there are 98 safer insecticides for turf/lawn or grass seed pests….I’m just wondering if the Extension service, are they working with you all on this and giving you some of these other potential options, and have they been tried and they just don’t work?”
Time and time again this letter was brought up in the committee hearing. “The letter,” you know the one that has…
“47 different signers, academics, scientists, from multiple universities here in Oregon.”
And, “It seems to me like we have got a lot of people in the academics as well as in the sciences that are basically saying that there are alternatives.”
Also to another panel, “You may want to look (at the letter) because it’s on OLIS; Jonathan Manton was the submitter.”
And then finally when he voted to move the bill to ban chlorpyrifos after 2021, “It does in fact appear at least from the material that has been provided online that there are alternatives…and I will be supporting a motion.”
While I’m used to the back-and-forth and “he said, she said” that is typical of a public hearing on legislation, this time it didn’t sit right with me. I felt as though my integrity and that of my industry were being called into question. So I did just what Senator Prozanski asked us all to do that day in the hearing, and I looked up the letter on OLIS.
I’ll be honest that when this whole thing started, I imagined myself pouring over 98 labels of insecticides–cataloging mode of actions, pests controlled, pests partially controlled, how they would work into our cropping system, etc. I almost wish that was where this journey landed me. Instead, I ended up down a rabbit hole of zero accountability for what is submitted as testimony by a registered lobbyist. Where I landed is frustrating, because I take a lot of pride in what I put my name behind, and I was under the (apparently false) assumption that others did too.
So here is my journey, and I’m calling it that because once you’re done reading this I hope you’re as exhausted as I am.
Day 1: Find the Letter & then Find the Alternative Insecticide List
I got “the letter” from the legislative website. First thing I did was count the signatures and found there were only 45 signers (not 47). Of those 45, two are repeats, three are spelled incorrectly, and one person I couldn’t verify. So I re-looked at the letter, now with only 39 verified signatures, and while the attention to detail is obviously not there, I had some additional questions:
- Who drafted the letter?
- What are the 98 alternative insecticides that are referenced?
- Of those alternatives, are the products registered for use in Oregon, by what methods can they be applied, and what pests are they labeled to treat?
Day 2 Who drafted “THE LETTER” and What are the 98 Alternatives?
I started with Senator Prozanski’s office. I emailed a request for the list of alternatives. I was emailed back a pdf from an organization that I knew wasn’t connected to “the letter.” So I wrote back asking more specifically for the list that was continually referred to during committee, the one that lists 98 safer alternatives, specially listed for lawn/turf or grass seed. I also made a phone call a few days later to follow up. I still haven’t heard back from the Senator’s office.
Dead End Number 1.
So then I figured it might be safe to assume that the registered lobbyist who submitted the letter as testimony also drafted the letter. Jonathan Manton, lobbyist for Oregon Organic Coalition, submitted the letter into testimony and was referred to time and time again surrounding the letter. So I called him and asked. Nope, he didn’t draft the letter and interestingly enough didn’t even know who wrote the letter. This seemed strange since he entered it into testimony. So onto the next question, “Can you send me the list of alternatives that the letter refers to?” Again, the answer was no. He told me to check the website that is listed on the letter. He said he had never seen an actual list. Aren’t registered lobbyists required to adhere to code of ethics? Why would a registered lobbyist submit something without verifying if it is even accurate?
Dead End Number 2.
In looking at the letter, it references the Pesticide Research Institute. So I went to the website: http://pesticideresearch.com/site/evaluator/ and began to look around. It looked at first as though I would have to get a subscription in order to use the tool that was referenced. So I clicked on “subscriptions.” But wait…low and behold they aren’t giving out any new subscriptions. This seemed odd. I called the office number on the website, but it had been disconnected. So I called another number that I found and left a message on what sounded like a cell phone.
Dead End Number 3.
Days 3, 4, and 5:
Back to square one and back to “the letter.” I decided to contact the academics who had signed the letter. The first call I got back was from a gentleman from Oregon State University (OSU). He said he did sign the letter, but said he couldn’t speak to alternative options and that he wasn’t familiar with that area of study. He also didn’t know who wrote the letter. Wait, you signed a letter but didn’t know anything about the purported list of alternatives and don’t even know the area of study?! I thought universities had a code of ethics and accountability that professionals adhere to. Turns out OSU does.
I contacted all of the verifiable 39 signatories on the letter. Here is a list of the things that I heard over and over again….
- I can’t tell you who wrote the letter, maybe….(insert a multitude of names here)
- I can’t speak to the alternatives, that’s not my area of expertise.
- What is Chlorpyrifos?
- Good Luck!
Cue my disbelief….
Here is the list of people that they thought MAY have drafted the letter. I contacted all of these folks, and their answers follow their names. None of them had claimed to have seen the list, except number 7.
- Lobbyist Jonathan Manton, No
- Professor at OSU, No
- Oregon League of Conservative Voters, No
- Environment Oregon, No
- Beyond Toxics, No
- Earth Justice, No
- Friends of the Earth, YES!!!
Day 6: Call the drafter of “THE LETTER”
After days and days of calling and emailing, I had finally found out who drafted the letter! The Friends of the Earth. The gentleman whose contact info I found works out of Washington DC, which makes no real difference beyond the fact that he might not understand what we are working with as far as Pacific Northwest cropping systems and pests here in Oregon. But not wanting to hit yet another dead end, I called him. He said that getting the list “should be no problem. I should have something to you by the end of the day today.” This was looking promising…
Day 7 & 8: I’m still waiting
Two days later I had heard nothing from ‘Friends of the Earth.’ However, I am still getting calls and emails back from signers of the letter, all more of the same useless information. So I follow up with Friends of the Earth. “Oh I meant to get back to you,” he told me. And he preceded to tell me that they had gotten the list from the website that was in the letter, the Pesticide Research Institute. He continued on that I would need to get a subscription to the website in order to get the list. So I followed up, asking if he could just give me a copy of the list that they used, because I’m assuming here that they must have at some point had a list. He assured me that while he’s sure they had at one time had a list, they no longer do, unfortunately.
Dead End Number 4.
Day 9: The information you are looking for no longer exists
At this point I knew the Pesticide Research Institute website was no longer taking subscription requests. But, I had learned a little more about the website just one day before. Turns out I received a call back from that cell phone number, returning my voice message. The woman introduced herself and said that she was the owner of the website. She was in the process of shutting it down, however, because she recently bought a small farm and that is taking up more of her time than she thought it would. Insert ironic jokes here. Anyway, she said that if someone had a previous login they could maybe, in theory, access the list, but they have been having browser issues so she wasn’t sure that would work. In August 2020 it would be shut down, however. I could also pay her to do it possibly in her free time, but again with all the browser issues, she couldn’t guarantee that she could get the information I was asking for. She also hadn’t updated the website for almost 3 years, so there was no guarantee the information was up-to-date or complete. Cue my continued disbelief….
Dead End Number 5.
The end of the journey
And here is unfortunately where this journey ends. “The letter” that had been referenced as fact by Oregon legislators and registered environmental lobbyists, the letter that attested to NINETY EIGHT safer alternatives that were going to save the day for grass seed, proved to be misinformation. The scientists who signed that letter did not even have access to the list of “98 safer alternatives” for Oregon farmers. And if I wanted to try to prove this negative, I would be required to pay someone to get out-of-date information from a website that no longer has funding and will soon cease to exist. I’m just a citizen, isn’t it the lobbyist’s job to provide factual and accurate information?
So here we are…. and my mind keeps going back to that public hearing in the Senate on House Bill 4109. I was testifying as a farmer who has grown grass seed for over a decade, telling legislators that I don’t have alternatives to control the pests that attack my crops. And Senator Prozanski is reading us the letter. He instructs us all to read the letter, and he tells us all that we should follow up. Well I did, senator. It took me over a week just to get to where I’m at now, which is still no list, still no answers. So can we call these safer “alternatives,” if we can’t even get a copy of the list? Absolutely not.
What happened to professional integrity?
This journey started out as a fact-finding mission and ended with me questioning the integrity of the legislative process and registered lobbyists who put forward information without regard for the facts. This isn’t as easy as: “I read this, and PhD’s signed it so it must be true.” I wish I would have said, when asked about the letter, that I bet none of the signers are farmers. I bet not one of those PhD’s actually did the research to see if any of those 98 insecticides were labeled for legal use in Oregon. But how could they? No one had the data when they were asked to sign the letter.
I also wish I had the chance to ask of the legislators, “Do you really think that we like to spray this chemical?” Time and time again, our own legislators accuse us of just keeping the status quo. They say we aren’t doing our part to find solutions. These statements are not only upsetting, but they are hurtful to families across Oregon who work to grow food and fiber for the rest of the world.
I love what I do; I take an immense amount of pride in how we treat our employees and how we raise healthy food. As the third generation on our farm, I also take pride in my healthy soils. Those are things that I don’t take lightly. So it just sucks to sit in committee and have my livelihood and farm practices called into question because of a letter that told legislators the opposite. A letter that at best is not based on fact and at worse is blatantly misleading Oregon lawmakers and members of the public. A letter that references information that no longer exists (and I’m beginning question whether it ever did).
After being told that I can pay for the possibility of finding that information that should have been made available to the public in the first place, I’m ending this journey. It’s not fair to me, my industry or the public. And by no means will I “pay to play” with this NGO that clearly doesn’t value the integrity of the public process like I do. But then, the viability of my farm is what’s at stake, and what does Friends of the Earth have to lose?
For those policymakers or members of the public who are still reading….
So let me tell you how it works in the real world. Farmers need crop protection tools that aren’t just simply written down on a nice clean sheet of paper. We need to legally control the pests attacking our crops; we need investments in research and development to see if alternative insecticide products are safe to use to control the same bugs; and we need investments in the state specialty crop registration process that can take 4-7 years.
We work with our Extension agents regularly. We work with crop consultants who are always looking for new ways to manage pests. I know that what I spray as a farmer can be dangerous when used incorrectly. I KNOW THAT! I raise my family on my farm. I would love for an alternative to exist to chlorpyrifos. Trust me, wearing a respirator isn’t the best thing I do while farming, not by a long shot. So yes, I would love for a product to come along that is safer to handle. I even testified that we tried a few other products during the infestation of army worms, and they didn’t work. Our crops were literally disappearing overnight.
So when I’m told time and time again that I’m not doing enough, I take it personally. And maybe that’s why I chose this rabbit hole to get sucked into. Because I was sitting in a public hearing on House Bill 4109, one where farmers showed up to testify in a 2 to 1 ratio and still, still, we are not believed. In fact, the integrity of our testimony and industry seemed to be called into question and in large part because of “the letter,” referenced by legislators and put forward by a registered lobbyist.
The letter that no one knows who wrote. The letter that provides a seemingly simple list of alternative insecticides that Oregon growers are able to use without any actual data. The letter that makes claims that not one single PhD who signed can substantiate. And they can’t, because not one of them has seen this list. The letter and list of alternatives that one senator brought up time and time again without even seeing it himself.
Maybe everyone just hoped that no one would look into it. Maybe the thought was one echoed by one of the very PhD’s that I talked to, “Maybe there isn’t a list. Maybe it was just put in there to beef up the letter?” Makes you wonder, huh?
So here’s a plan. Go out and buy a farm. Plant the specialty crops that use chlorpyrifos in Oregon today. Put all your income on the line and pray that mating disruption biopesticides will help with soil pests (spoiler: they won’t). Pray that you don’t have symphs in your soil (because if you do, you’re screwed). Pray that your years’ and years’ worth of work and your millions of dollars that you owe to the bank will get paid back. Hell maybe put that nice neat little letter with ALL those PhD’s signatures on top of the soil, and let the pests read it. Then you come and tell me how simple it is to just find the list of 98 alternatives that are safer, use those, and everyone wins. It’s so easy, it’s so simple, if only it were.
I didn’t write this to argue the pluses and minuses of having the tool chlorpyrifos. I am writing this because I hope it comes across how frustrated I am. If we are at a place in Oregon where people can just submit whatever they wish without data to back it up, then farmers in Oregon are sunk. If integrity doesn’t matter, then what happened this session will occur in sessions following the 2020 short session. And I fear that someday this mentality—and the ability to put forward false information as truth—will cost my family our farm.