THORNDIKE — When the green fields around Michael Clark’s home suddenly turned brown and died after Marshall Daly, whose farm is over the town line in Knox, sprayed pesticide containing glyphosate, he became concerned. Clark did some research on the pesticide and talked with state officials about its legal use, but that did not relieve his worries.

He asked Daly to notify him before spraying, which farmers are required by law to do once they have been asked. And he is considering getting his well tested frequently to make sure the pesticide is not leeching into the water table.

“I’m concerned with my well, I’m concerned with the school (Mount View complex), I’m concerned with my other neighbors and my other neighbors are concerned as well,” Clark said.

Lawrence Dakin lives a couple of houses away from one of the fields that is sprayed. He also noticed the field turn brown and was surprised to learn that pesticides were being used on such a large area of land, he said. He, too, fears the pesticide could contaminate his well.

Dakin grew up on his parents’ farm in Thorndike, where pesticides were not used, he said. “I was kind of surprised. I mean I was born on a farm, born and raised on a farm and … we just plowed it, harrowed it and seeded it. We didn’t spray all this crap on it.”

His father has lived in and around Thorndike since 1953 and knows the direction in which water flows in the area, and the neighboring properties are downhill from the sprayed fields, he said. He has not talked with Daly about the pesticide use because he is concerned the conversation might turn hostile. “I voice my concerns where necessary and I don’t want to get into a big pissing contest with the neighbors,” he said.

Clark has spoken to Daly over the phone and their conversations have not always been pleasant, he said. Though his property has not been visibly affected, Clark is concerned that the pesticide could drift onto his own property or those of other people that are closer to the fields than his.

Daly, who declined to be interviewed, grows corn in the fields around Clark’s house and Mount View complex on Route 220, and also near other homes in the area. He is a licensed pesticide applicator and his use of the pesticide is completely legal. But it has some neighbors asking themselves why the chemicals are used in the first place, especially so close to a school.

Regional School Unit 3 Superintendent Charles Brown said in an email that the school is in constant contact with Daly, the Maine Department of Agriculture, the Water Quality and Compliance Co. and the Maine drinking water program. Those organizations have assured him that the school is not at risk.

The school conducts monthly water tests, which have all come back showing no chemical contamination, he said. Daly has agreed to work with the school regarding when he will apply pesticide to further mitigate any risk. The school will continue to monitor the situation.

Clark acknowledged that there are a lot of farms in Thorndike, but he is concerned about how often the pesticide is used, he said. “Yes, I live in an area that has agriculture, but it just seems crazy that this is how we do agriculture,” he said. “I understand the time-saving benefits and stuff like that, but at some point we have to question, is this the right thing to be doing?”

Legislative efforts

Pesticides containing glyphosate are legal to use in Maine as long as they are used according to the federally approved label on the product, Board of Pesticide Control Director Megan Patterson said.

She has received several inquiries from Thorndike residents recently about their rights to know when the pesticide is being sprayed, she said. Farmers must keep at least two years’ worth of pesticide application records in case an inspector needs to see them.

Farmers are not required to submit pesticide data to the state, so it is unclear exactly how many of them are using the chemicals, according to Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry spokesperson Jim Britt.

There is a registry of farmers who are licensed to apply pesticides, but he does not know how many of them are actually using that license, he said. There are at least three other farmers in Thorndike licensed to use pesticides, according to the state’s pesticide license registry. The Maine Board of Pesticide Control has not found glyphosate in any of the surface water monitoring it has done, Britt said. It binds to soil and organic matter, which makes it unlikely to seep into groundwater.

Growers applying pesticide to food for human consumption and who intend to make more than $1,000 from their produce have to be licensed to apply pesticides to crops, Patterson said. Herbicides, like the glyphosate used by Daly, are a class of pesticides used to control grass and weeds. They can also be used in pavement or structure cracks to kill weeds.

Glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic to people, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that it probably is carcinogenic to humans, according to the World Health Organization.

In 2020, Roundup manufacturer Bayer agreed to pay more than $10 billion to settle lawsuits over the pesticide that claimed it caused unspecified harm to some people and gave others non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to an NPR news article from June 24, 2020.

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Deputy Director Heather Spalding said MOFGA has been lobbying for stricter pesticide regulations in the state. The organization advocates against the use of pesticides in general.

“We feel that it’s something that should not be used, and we would really like to see people embrace organic land management practices rather than relying on synthetic pesticides,” she said. “… I would not say that there is a safe way to regulate it. I think that it just needs to not be used.”

The organization helped work on a bill that was passed to phase out the use of glyphosate and dicamba around schools, which Spalding called a good step, but she does not think agriculture should be exempt from the rule, which is why the fields around the Mount View complex can be sprayed.

Other legislation MOFGA has been involved with includes bills prohibiting the aerial spraying of glyphosate and other synthetic herbicides, which was vetoed by the governor. MOFGA also worked on a bill to prohibit using chlorpyrifos, which was passed, as well as on other pesticide legislation.

Thorndike homeowner Matt Hagen’s property is also situated close to Daly’s fields. He asked to be notified when Daly sprays the pesticide because he has concerns about it being applied during certain wind conditions and directions. He is worried about the chemical leaching into areas outside the fields.

He does not want this to be a divisive issue for the community, though, and thinks there should be better education about the use of pesticides. Hagen would like to see open communication between farmers and community members to reach a mutually agreeable resolution.

“If there’s going to be a change in what herbicides the farmers use, then it has to be a community effort, ultimately,” he said.

More information about pesticides can be found at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry website, maine.gov/dacf.