Farmers have been spraying herbicides for a long time. In spite of that, for years organic gardeners were never really concerned about the straw being so contaminated with chemicals that it would effect our vegetable crops — possibly for years — if you used it as mulch.
Then herbicides that belong to a family of chemicals called pyridine that don’t break down readily came on the scene and things changed. All of sudden we have to be extremely careful of what manures, composts, and mulches we use.
We will not belabor at this time all the bad things chemicals do to our soil and gardens but will concentrate on whether or not we — as organic gardeners — can safely use straw that has been sprayed with herbicides.
The Answer is – it depends on
- what herbicide/pesticide was sprayed and
- how long ago.
I have been buying large rolls of straw from the same farmer for over 30 years. Many persisting herbicides have come on the scene over the past decade. Thus, I always ask about what if any changes my farmer has made in spraying his wheat fields. He always says the same thing — “no change” —- but I ALWAYS ask and take nothing for granted.
(And by the way, just so you’ll know —- straw is the stalk after the wheat grain is cut.)
Even though I’ve known these folks for many years and think a lot of them, it’s still up to me to do my homework and know what the results will be from what they spray. They’re totally into the chemical way and uninformed enough to think that these chemicals are harmless.
What my Farmer Uses
The wheat that my straw comes from is sprayed with nitrogen and an herbicide called Harmony in January. In February or March it is sprayed with another herbicide/pesticide called 2, 4-D. (They’ve been using 2,4-D on the wheat ever since I’ve been getting straw from them <almost 35 years> and possibly longer.) (2,4-D is short for 2,4-dichlorophenoxy acetic acid)
Before you gasp in dismay — read all the information first.
I’ll tell you some of the bad stuff first. (Don’t worry — there’s better news after this.)
2,4-D was first used about 1940.
- You’ll recall that 2, 4-D is one of the chemicals that was in Agent Orange. (2,4-D can be much more harmful when mixed with another herbicide.)
- It’s also what Monsanto’s genetically modified corn has in it — so that the corn itself will be immune to the 2,4-D spray. That means even more of 2,4-D in the environment.
- If 2,4-D drifts on the wind when sprayed — it can harm susceptible plants like beans, cotton, fruit trees, grapes, legumes, ornamental, peas, tomatoes and other vegetables that are miles away.
- Excessive amounts of 2,4-D in the soil may temporarily inhibit seed germination and all plant growth.
- There are other warnings that come with 2,4-D about not feeding treated forage, fodder, soybeans, or hay to livestock. And the company warns that hay or forage should not even be cut within 30 days of its application. Also farmers are warned not to graze their cattle on crops that were sprayed for at least 7 days. Some sources say 14 days. (The same warnings are given for the herbicide Harmony.)
In spite of the Dangers of 2,4-D
There are over 1000 products with this pesticide/herbicide sold in the United States. It is one of top 3 largest selling pesticides in North America.
The active ingredient in Weed B Gone that many homeowners use is 2,4-D. I wonder how many folks spray their dandelions (or maybe their neighbor sprays) in the spring and then wonder why their vegetable seedlings are not doing too well. (Or maybe why they’re not feeling too well themselves?)
Here’s the information (the better news) that makes it possible for us to use straw sprayed with Harmony and/or 2, 4-D:
How long Pesticides/Herbicides take to break down — is known as their Half-Life.
Pesticides/herbicides break down through microbial and chemical deterioration.
The time it takes them to breakdown is expressed as Pesticide/Herbicide Half-Life.
The half-life listed for each (in various available charts ) is time required to breakdown under ideal conditions. Persistence of herbicides and pesticides will vary according to different factors including light, temperature, soil moisture, type, ph, etc.
Some sources indicate that 2,4-D has a half-life of 7 to 14 days. I’m no scientist but I figure since there are warnings to the farmers on the instructions that hay or forage should not be cut until at least 30 days after application — 30 days (or even a bit more to be on the safe side) would be a more accurate half-life.
The half-life I found listed for Harmony was 12 days.
Figuring Safety using my Straw as an Example
Since the wheat crop that my straw comes from was sprayed in January and February, the 2,4-D and Harmony (using the Half-Life of 30 days) have already broken down by the time the straw is cut is cut in early summer.
Usually by the time I use my straw it’s a year old — sometimes more. But I have used rolls that have just been cut and have never had a problem. And as I said — I’ve been using the straw for almost 35 years. (Back then — I knew nothing of residual herbicides.)
In spite of the fact that man seems to be doing everything he can to destroy the earth, he’s not quite there yet. Nature is powerful and does lots to help us in our quest to obtain the very best things for our garden so that it can in turn help us be as healthy as possible.
True, it’s not as easy as it use to be. We can take nothing for granted. We have to do our homework and search out what is safe and what is not. We must ask questions, get answers, and then know the facts.
If the straw you find has been sprayed with something other than the two chemicals mentioned here, I’ll give you a few sources at the end of this post to make it easier to start your research.
If your straw like mine — has been sprayed with Harmony and/or 2,4-D — I feel you can use it safely in your organic garden after the right amount of time has passed and nature has broken down the chemicals.
Other Related Posts:
A Few Starting Points for Research:
http://www.pesticides.montana.edu/Reference/minimizingpesticidecontaminatedsoil.pdf This is a good one. Easy to understand and it gives some good tables with information.
http://extension.psu.edu/cover-crops/news/2012/herbicides-and-fall-cover-crop-establishment Gives a chart of half life for various herbicides.
Check this one out. Another good starting point. Very general.
Specimen label directions etc. of 2,4-D weed killer.
Organic Gardening is easy, effective, efficient — and it’s a lot healthier.
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