To spray or not to spray

Documentation and transparency are keys to heading off spray drift conflicts

The Ontario Professional Agri-Contractors Association (OPACA) brought stakeholders to the table for a candid discussion about spray drift. 

Deb Campbell, agronomist and owner of Agronomy Advantage near Dundalk, has seen first-hand the results of off-target movement of crop protection products. She has reviewed six insurance claims and has attended several driveshed meetings of angry neighbours. Tensions are high, but she says the industry is keeping it quiet. 

There is a lot at stake for agriculture. From an insurance perspective, Mike Brine explained that applicators are at a disadvantage because they are too small a group to spread the risk effectively and keep premiums down. 

Brine is the agribusiness specialist for Trillium Mutual, in Listowel, and he’s been in his career long enough to see many crop protection products pulled off the market for good.

Proper stewardship was a priority for everyone at the OPACA table. 

“We all want our products to be utilized effectively and appropriately,” says Adam Pfeffer, who works with Bayer Crop Science Canada. “I’ve spent my career trying to help growers and applicators steward not just our technology but others as well.” 

While some might argue that operators need to simply follow the label, Jason Deveau, OMAFRA’s Application Technology Specialist and the co-founder of Sprayers101.com, says with all the possible tank mix combinations and outdated or obscure labels, it is not so simple. 

Brine adds that a label won’t save an applicator from liability. Whoever is operating the sprayer is ultimately responsible for where the product lands.

Matt Thrower is Winfield United’s account manager for Eastern Canada. “We are trying to help people be the application experts,” says Thrower, as he describes the research Winfield has been doing on nozzles and different tank mixes from various companies to better understand how droplet size, boom height, driving speed and weather conditions impact the potential for drift. The company also offers training courses and adjuvant products. 

Farmers and custom operators have tough decisions to make. Dennis Frey, owner of Clean Field Services near Drayton, says he does the best he can from his office using weather forecasting but ultimately trusts his operators to make the best call. 

When wind speeds get up to 12 km/hour, he can opt to add more water to the tank and use coarser droplets, depending on the product. Products that need a medium droplet size simply need to wait for another day. 

“The first question I ask when someone hires me for a job is what’s growing in the area,” says Colin Clark, owner-operator of Precision Applicators near Blenheim. 

When he sprays next to a greenhouse, his rule of thumb is to wait until the wind is blowing away from it. He also subscribes to forecast apps, knows the chemistries and tank mixes he works with and has his customers organized by what crop is the highest priority to go to when the conditions are right. 

When contractors are under pressure to get their customers’ fields done, prioritizing is key. Clark described a time when a decision lost him a customer. 

“At least I didn’t lose my reputation,” he said.

Clark suggests operators get out of the cab and stretch their legs often enough to keep on top of changing winds. Use a hand-held wind meter, he says. Or sometimes his best indicator is the dust behind the tires. 

Despite all efforts to avoid it, the contractors on the panel had first-hand experience with drift and talked openly about how they dealt with it. They say they try to be transparent and work with farmers to resolve the issue right away.

Both contractors keep meticulous records as well. Clark makes it a habit to take time-stamped photographs with landmarks of the area at the time he sprays. Some might argue that if there are no records, there would also be no liability but, from an insurance standpoint, Brine stresses that is not the case. 

“Keep records,” he says. “At some point down the road, you might be very thankful that you have them.” Deveau says it would be a good idea for operators, at the very least, to send an email to themselves from the field with the details of the job and the conditions.

While farmers should be concerned with their own businesses, this issue is much bigger than any individual business can solve. Pfeffer suggests the industry needs a more formal feedback loop to keep improving. 

An organization like OPACA might be a place to work together on this common problem. Frey notes that, like himself, some people in the online audience had over 30 years of experience spraying and he believes this type of experience should be shared with others, even competitors, for the good of the industry as a whole. A recording of the event is available at OPACA’s website at www.opaca.net.

Melisa Luymes is executive director of the Ontario Professional Agri-Contractors Association.

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