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USGS groundwater sampling results bode well for agriculture

A recent article by a Greenwire reporter, an entity I'm not familiar with, detailed a study by the U.S. Geological Survey that shows groundwater has not retained high levels of pesticide contamination.

The report compares samples from 362 wells, taken from 1993 to 1995, and then again from 2001 to 2003. Samples were analyzed for more than 80 pesticide compounds. Six of those pesticides were detected in water from at least 10 wells during both sampling periods. But concentrations of those pesticides were typically less than 0.12 parts per billion. That's 10 times lower than U.S. EPA drinking water standards.

The article noted the findings are encouraging, but offered no real reason for the low concentrations.

Perhaps the reason lies with the folks who apply these materials to plants and soil to protect crops from weed competition, disease injury and insect damage. And perhaps technology and techniques that have emerged over the last decade also play roles.

Most of the chemicals farmers use to protect crops from various pests are more expensive than they were 10 years ago, so economics may dictate some reduction in use. And, despite some popular beliefs, good farmers rarely add materials they don't need or that they know could cause problems. They live on the land and feel obligated to take care of it.

Improvements in seed technology, including herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, have curtailed the amount of pesticide farmers apply to their soils. Few make more than two or three trips across a field in a season to kill weeds. And with Bt varieties, they eliminate several applications for insect control.

Integrated pest management programs also contribute. Better scouting techniques, more information about beneficial insects' contribution to pest control and more targeted application of specific materials has eliminated the shotgun approach of killing anything that crawls. They use as little as possible when they have to use anything at all.

Programs like the Boll Weevil Eradication Program also help reduce pesticide use. At one time, cotton farmers routinely sprayed their crop a dozen or more times a season to kill weevils and worms. Eradication has virtually eliminated the weevil as an economic pest throughout most of the Cotton Belt. And those GMO varieties take care of many of the worm problems.

Farmers also pay closer attention to water movement in and out of their fields. Water is a valuable commodity and most want to keep as much as possible in the field and out of bar ditches. They keep crop residue or cover crops in place to hold water. Reduced tillage systems help.

Crop rotation, careful use of irrigation and conservation strips also save water and keep crop protection materials where they do the most good.

Industry has played a part, too, developing pesticides that are less likely to leach into the groundwater or move out of fields. A farmer recently told me that he uses “softer” pesticides than were available just a decade or so ago.

It's encouraging to see that a USGS report shows what most farmers could have told them. They don't knowingly overuse pesticides. It's too expensive, too wasteful, and too potentially damaging to the resources farmers rely on for their livings.

Stewardship is alive and well.

TAGS: Management
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