How are agri-chemicals affecting the lives of rural Iowans?

As crop dusters circle above, researchers are working to find out

July 23, 2023 11:00 am

A crop duster sprays chemicals on a field. (Stock photo via Canva)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Vrrrrrrrrrrrrroom. The crop dusters are coming soon to a location near you. The small planes circle the fields at this time of year, spraying fungicides and pesticides. They dodge trees and phone lines to descend as low as possible to apply their aerial applications.

For the most part, their acrobatics are out of sight for city dwellers, but for rural citizens, the planes are a part of the rhythm of the summer, their engines roaring, wings tipping, circling through the blue sky above to make another swipe at the neighbor’s cornfield.

Heather Roller, a professor of history and environmental studies at Colgate University, landed in town with her two student assistants Katie Moser and Anna Miksis. They hurried through my office door, escaping the Canadian wildfire smoke that had engulfed us. They were here doing research for Heather’s new book, “A Social and Environmental History of Agrichemicals.”

Unlike most other research on pesticides, Heather’s book isn’t looking at the chemistry of pesticides, but rather, their effect on rural families. How have rural people experienced pesticides in their own lives? In their communities? How do they perceive their role in the landscape? What stories do rural people tell about agri-chemicals? How do these substances shape farmers’ ecological worlds?

Most, but not all of my immediate Amish neighbors, raise organic crops without the use of agri-chemicals. But the majority of operators throughout the state farm conventionally— staying within the confines of the established system of plowing, planting genetically modified seed, and applying herbicides and pesticides.

“What do you think set off Lloyd’s cancer?” I once heard my neighbors discuss the death of their cousin. “So young. 50 years old, right?”

“Don’t know. Probably the spray.”

“I suppose.”

Often, farmers seem fatalistic about the system, knowing that it could be damaging their health. But other options are not easy. Transitioning to organic is a slow, costly process.

And it’s just these perceptions — or their opposites — that Heather is trying to capture in her book. She, Katie and Anna had driven to northern Iowa to interview a farmer whose father had most likely died from exposure to agri-chemicals. The father’s difficult death set the son off in a different direction, one that embraced regenerative agriculture.

“Humans and the environment are reciprocal influences on one another,” Heather said. “We have to think of them both as actors in history.”

Professor Roller came to her recent material from research she had done in Brazil. She had studied Indigenous people there and the great environmental changes that they had had to deal with near the Amazon.

Anna Miksis had grown up near a superfund site in suburban Massachusetts. Her parents’ friends became activists, raising the alarm about cancer clusters.

Katie Moser had always loved animals, particularly horses, and how these creatures had once functioned in urban environments. This interest motivated her to sign up for Professor Roller’s Introduction to Environmental History class.

Heather’s own personal experience also played a role in her life’s work.  On vacation in Europe with her parents, Heather was downwind of the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in 1986. Later, both Heather and her mother were diagnosed with and received treatment for lymphoma. Heather went into remission, but sadly, her mother passed away from the disease.

“We talk about moments of reckoning in my environmental history classes,” Heather said. “And some groups have to deal with issues sooner than others. For example, Indigenous groups have had to deal with environmental crises since the advent of colonialism, and they have a deep sense of coping and adapting to those problems and often dealing with them collectively. And other groups come to that moment of reckoning later, and sometimes after many years of denial.

“In my classes we also talk about a term called ‘predatory delay.’  There are institutions and corporations whose interest is to block needed action and to keep people in the dark about the urgency of our moment. It’s important not to blame people for their state of denial or blissful ignorance. In some ways, those conditions have been purposely created by people in power. And hence the term “predatory delay.’ It’s not benign. It’s actually by design. Once you start looking around, you begin to see predatory delay everywhere.”

“We talked about fossil fuel companies,” Anna said. “We talked about the book ‘Merchants of Doubt’ by Oreskes and Conway. There are people with huge resources that can influence the environmental regulations in our government. The resourced people can sow enough doubt that these regulations are pushed to the side.”

Predatory delay silences critics. The danger of pesticides is a case in point. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, who herself was dying of breast cancer, tried to get any number of her scientist colleagues to write a book about pesticides and the damage they were doing to the environment.

The scientists all refused. Too controversial of a topic. Too much pressure to remain quiet, putting one’s own research in jeopardy from funding sources.  So, Carson wrote the book herself, withstanding ridicule from the chemical industry. Eventually, Silent Spring became a best seller and the use of DDT was curtailed.

Eventually, historians like Heather Roller and her assistants may shape our environmental narrative, addressing the doubt and disinformation that have brought us to where we are today.  Eventually, we may save the beautiful landscape we call home and embrace our roles as actors in history. In the meantime, we’ll choke down a little more smoke and wait for the crop dusters to circle overhead.

This column is republished from Mary Swanders’ Buggy Land, through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Mary Swander
Mary Swander

Mary Swander is a well-published author and playwright, the executive director of AgArts, and the host of the “AgArts from Horse & Buggy Land” podcast. Find her work at She is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative. Subscribe to her blog, Mary Swander's Buggy Land, here.