This week the Indy investigates complaints of chemical contamination in Bitterroot Valley vegetable gardens. The Hamilton Farmers' Market and Victor-based nonprofit Sustainable Living Systems will host a meeting in the Hamilton library this Thursday at 7 p.m. to hear stories from local growers and gauge the extent of the problem.
The Montana Department of Agriculture confirmed that in one case this summer cow manure from a local dairy farm contained traces of aminopyralid, a key chemical component in the herbicide Milestone. Ag-specialist Sarah Holden says the farmer, Wally Weber, was unaware the manure was contaminated when he sold it to Bitterroot gardeners. He made an "honest mistake," Holden says.
The issue first came to light when Sandy Gates (pictured above), seven-year owner of Clearwater Farm, submitted a number of stunted potato plants to the Ravalli County Extension Office for testing. Results from the Department of Agriculture prompted Weber to halt sale of the manure. Holden says its the only confirmed case of aminopyralid contamination in the area this summer.
Milestone has a colored history in the international gardening community. Last summer, thousands of farmers in the United Kingdom lost crops to aminopyralid. The chemical only attacks broadleaf plants like potatoes, tomatoes and beans. Garry Hamlin, a spokesman for Milestone-producer Dow AgroSciences in Indiana, says several states have suffered from similar incidents this summer. He credits the problems to misuse of the herbicide or to unintentional contamination from manure or compost sellers unaware their product contains the chemical.
“We’ve heard that something was going on in Montana, but we didn’t have specifics," Hamlin says. "Assuming the growers are interested, we’d be very much interested in having a discussion with them to learn more about what’s happened.”
Down at Clearwater Farm, Gates says the issue of contaminated soil extends beyond Milestone. Growers could find their crops exposed to any number of chemicals from any number of sources. The best defense is caution, she says, and herbicides are sadly an ever-present and easily overlooked hurdle for local small-scale farmers.