By Jennie Schmidt: Sudlersville, Maryland
Do you lock your door at night? Wear a coat when it’s cold outside? Put a case on your cell phone?
If you do any of these things, it’s because you believe in the power of protection—from burglars, from the elements, or from ordinary clumsiness. These simple safeguards help us lead better lives.
My crops need protection, too. They require defenses against the bugs that want to feast on them, the weeds that want to steal their water and nutrients, and the diseases that want to infect them.
On our farm in Maryland, we use a wide range of crop-protection products on our wine grapes, canning tomatoes, and fresh-market green beans as well as on our corn and soybeans. They allow us to grow stronger and healthier plants. For consumers, this means better and more affordable food in greater abundance.
Unfortunately, many people misunderstand crop protection. This gives rise to confusion, rumors, and junk science. I’d like to set the record straight.
One of our most basic crop-protection tools is fungicide. Anyone who has let bread sit around for too long knows what can happen: Mold and mildew strike and spread. Pretty soon, they destroy the whole loaf.
Leaves are a lot like loaves: The same thing can happen to them in the field. Like a preventative medicine, fungicide keeps away these threats. That’s good for consumers because nobody wants to buy moldy food at the grocery store or in the market.
It’s also good for us on the farm because disease-free plants grow healthy green tissue. Their leaves become miniature solar panels, converting sunlight into the energy that allows fruits and vegetables to ripen.
Anything that disrupts this process is a hazard. Mold and mildew are a major problem, especially during wet years, but they’re not our only concern. We also have to contend with weeds and insects. Both prey on our fields—and we use appropriate crop-protection products to defend them.
The purpose of herbicides is to limit competition from weeds, which seek to rob our crops of the soil’s moisture and nutrients. If our plants don’t receive what they need from nature, they won’t grow like they should—and they’ll fail to produce the food we want. So we do our best to clean the weeds from our fields.
Another benefit of fighting weeds with crop protection is that we can engage in more sustainable farming. Before the advent of herbicides, the best way to destroy weeds was to till the soil—in other words, to turn it over with plows, uprooting weeds and killing them. The problem is that plowing hurts the soil, releasing its moisture and exposing sediment to the forces of wind and rain. This means our crop-protection products are also soil-protection products. They let us leave our topsoil intact, allowing us to engage in no-till farming and thereby defending against soil erosion.
In addition to fighting mold, mildew, and weeds, we use crop-protection products to defeat bugs. They love our crops almost as much as we do—and they’re constantly trying to eat what we grow.
Every bite they take, however, hurts our plants. Their chomping causes physical damage and opens doorways for disease. Think of it like a cut on your hand: If you don’t treat it, you risk an infection. The same is true for crops. When insects munch and suck on leaves, they slice into a plant’s skin and make it possible for bacteria and diseases to enter. So we use pesticides to thwart them.
Our crop-protection products work well—and they’re also safe. I know because I handle them myself: One of my jobs on our farm is to mix and apply our sprays. They’ve all passed health and safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. If I had any concerns about these tools, I wouldn’t use them: In addition to being a farmer, I’m also a mom. I wouldn’t put my family at risk.
What would happen without crop-protection products that guard against fungus, weeds, and pests? For starters, we’d have a lot less food. What we did have would be more expensive and less healthy. Instead of looking pristine, it would be contaminated by scarring and deformities.
If you prefer bright red apples with delicious flavor to brown-spotted apples with worms in them, then you prefer a world with safe and effective crop protection.
Maybe we should quit calling them “crop-protection products” and consider calling them “food-protection products” because that’s what they’re really all about: Helping us secure good and healthy food for everyone.
Jennie Schmidt is a third-generation farmer growing grains, vegetables and wine grapes on a family farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. As a farmer, mom and registered dietitian, Jennie is passionate about connecting people with food and farming. Jennie volunteers as a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org) where this column originates.