Saskatchewan Organic Growers Urged to Register Their Fields

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DriftWatch helps producers avoid unintended damages caused by spray drift from commercial pesticide applicators

An organization that represents organic farmers in Saskatchewan is encouraging its members to register their fields through an online registry called DriftWatch.

SaskOrganics president Garry Johnson said the DriftWatch registry can help organic producers avoid unintended damages caused by spray drift from commercial pesticide applicators.

The registry uses an online mapping tool to plot the locations of sensitive agricultural operations, including organic farms, fruit orchards and beehives.

The program has been in use in the United States since 2012.

Saskatchewan Agriculture is the only provincial agriculture department to endorse the system, although talks are underway in other Canadian provinces as well.

“It’s a tool that will help us to communicate the number of organic acres that are out there, showing that there are sensitive areas and providing custom applicators with that information,” said Johnson, an organic grower from Swift Current.

“The custom applicators that are out there are very cognizant of the fact that there are sensitive areas that should be avoided, not only organic but other specialty crops and bee hives as well, so they’re working very closely with … DriftWatch to make sure the system works for everyone.”

Financial losses caused by spray drift can be significant, not only for organic producers but also for pesticide applicators.

Richard Wilkens, a pesticide regulatory specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, said aerial applicators are eager to avoid drift issues.

Insurance claims that stem from pesticide drift can have a huge impact on their policy premiums, Wilkens said.

Claims deductibles for aerial applicators can run as high as $25,000 per claim, he added.

For organic growers, a single incident of spray drift can result in the decertification of affected organic land, loss of organic price premiums and additional costs associated with regaining certification.

“If we happen to have some chemical drift on to our property, that means that certification has to be removed from that piece of land and it takes three years to put that land back into organic production, so it really can be quite significant,” Johnson said.

As DriftWatch becomes more popular, custom applicators including aerial sprayers will have access to a comprehensive resource that shows areas where greater care must be taken, he added.

The hope is that the system will facilitate a higher level of communication between farmers and applicators and allow commercial sprayers to adjust their work plans when necessary.

“Basically, the fundamental idea for having this system is to facilitate communication between pesticide applicators and specialty crop producers, like beekeepers, organic growers, fruit and vegetable producers, and a host of others,” said Wilkens.

“Our industry relies on relationships and respect for our neighbours and the freedom to operate, and that’s on both ends of the spectrum — both the conventional folks and the organic folks.”

“People have the right to farm the way they want to farm.… If we can facilitate some communication … and let (applicators) know where the sensitive sites are … it can help them in terms of developing their work plans.”

DriftWatch was developed in 2012 at Perdue University.

It is now in use in 17 U.S. states and has about 20,000 sensitive operations registered.

Participation has been slow in Saskatchewan, but SaskOrganics is hoping its members will take advantage of the system.

The program is non-profit and free to use.

Costs to operate the system are covered by a combination of sources, including corporate donations from chemical companies that wish to co-exist with beekeepers, organic growers and others who grow sensitive specialty crops.

Wilkens said the program is gaining traction in Saskatchewan but more users are needed to ensure the tool’s benefits are fully realized.

In Saskatchewan, the system has about 200 users and roughly 1,000 sites registered.

“Of those 1,000 sites, about 850 are bees,” Wilkens said.

Mapped properties in Saskatchewan can be viewed online at sk.driftwatch.org/map.