Click to Print
. . . .

Moth spraying threatens a local tea grower‘s organic status

Erin Crowell - May 23rd, 2011
In a matter of days, Angela Macke will know if her Traverse City organic
tea farm will remain open or be forced to close for six years. The Light
of Day Organic Tea owner has spent the last eight weeks attempting to sway
her neighbors, residents of Ironwood Hills Subdivision, from aerial
spraying microbial pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and organic
pesticide Dimilin over the subdivision property in an attempt to kill
forest tent caterpillars.
Although the spraying is legal, Macke is concerned about off-target
drifting from the pesticides, which—if it settled on the herbs, flowers
and fruit used to make 50% of her business’s organic tea—would force her
to lose her organic certification for up to six years, according to
regulations by the National Organic Program and Demeter Biodynamic Farm

It’s one more story in the never-ending debate over use of pesticides to
kill what has appeared to be an onslaught of caterpillars in Northern
The area has seen heavy outbreak for the past two springs. According to
the Department of Natural Resources, outbreaks last for two to five years,
with most running their course in two to three years.
Macke admits the bugs are an inconvenience, but has taken her own steps to
eliminate the pests on her farm.
“We were scooping them up by the barrel-full,” says Macke. “We burned a
couple hundred thousand last year and spread the ashes over the property,”
a method used by biodynamic farmers as a type of “warning” to keep future
pests away.
“In forest stands, tree mortality is not common following an FTC outbreak.
Rather, growth loss is the major impact. In aspen (trees), a single heavy
defoliation can reduce growth by 50-60 percent in that year. Two years of
heavy defoliation reduces growth by up to 90 percent. However, within a
year after an outbreak, growth generally recovers to normal levels,”
according to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
It’s this reason Macke said she is most concerned about spraying.
“My biggest concern is that they’ll see this natural decline and
inaccurately think ‘Wow, thank goodness I sprayed’ – but that’s not why;
and they’ll continue to spray every year,” said Macke.
The DNR also believes outbreaks eventually subside as caterpillars succumb
to parasites and other insect natural enemies; however, it recommends the
use of Bt during heavy outbreak periods – a practice many
environmentalists oppose.

The use of insecticides on flowering fruit trees—which happens this time
of year—could seriously affect beehives in the area, according to an
information pamphlet published by Dr. Robert Sirrine of the Michigan State
University Extension in Leelanau County. It’s a concern Macke has for her
own hives, which can pollinate up to a three mile radius.
Bt, which is labeled a “naturally occurring bacterium” works by “producing
proteins (‘toxic crystals’) that reacts with the cells of the gut lining
of susceptible insects. These Bt proteins paralyze the digestive system,
and the infected insect stops feeding within hours,” according to a report
by Colorado State University.
In that same pamphlet, Sirrine wrote, “Insecticide products containing Bt
are toxic only to butterfly and moth caterpillars. It is not toxic to
other groups of insects, fish mammals or humans. This is not accurate –
recent studies show that humans have been suffering gastrointestinally
post spray. This is especially true of anyone with a compromised immune
“We simply do not know and fully understand, yet, the impact of broad
spectrum pesticides,” said Dr. Tanja Molby, a veterinarian in Leelanau
County. “Dimilin has further been labeled an ‘Endocrine disrupter.’ The
endocrine system in humans and other mammals is extremely important in
regulating our hormone household which in turn regulates many functions
such as reproduction and immunity.”
Molby also notes Dimilin has been found to be toxic to aquatic crustaceans
and many aquatic insects – animals that are food sources to gamefish,
waterfowl, shorebirds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
“On the other hand…several agencies have released statements saying that
‘no human health effects are likely,’” she adds.
Because the health effects of pesticides are still fairly debatable, Molby
believes they should be limited as much as possible.
“Ninety percent of our immune function is in our gut,” said Macke, who is
also a registered nurse. “That’s why I’ve been so interested in autoimmune
matters and diseases,” having been diagnosed with Chron’s disease several
years ago.
She started her organic tea business after a battle with an autoimmune
disease, Macke discovered the healing power of tea; and has since promoted
a holistic lifestyle.

Off-target drifting may incur legal consequences for the contractor and
its employer. In an email communication between Macke and the Ironwood
Hills treasurer, who states that the contractor—in this case, Stevenson
Spraying—would be “held liable in this situation, not Ironwood Hills,”
adding that the residents are spraying as individuals, even though one
check was written.
Ted Simmons, the pilot in charge of the subdivision spray, says he is well
aware of the legal consequences if off-target drifting were to occur;
however, Simmons (who is also owner of the Lakeview aerial service) said
he is confident in his practice of aerial insecticide application.
“We’re pretty confident in what we do,” Simmons said in a phone interview.
“There are a lot of precautions in place. The boundary we’re spraying is
up to 700 feet and she’s upwind of where we’re spraying. From the get-go,
that’s a very large boundary for us. We also use GPS, which is very
accurate, and we use flow controllers.”
Despite all precautions, Simmons admits there is always a possibility for
“It’s possible, but I also wouldn’t risk it if I didn’t feel comfortable.”
Simmons added he intends to spray in the morning or evening when winds are
at their lightest, but Macke says she’s still uncomfortable with the
amount of wind her property gets (the farm is located on the high elevated
boundary of Leelanau County off M-72, near the giant windmill).
With plans to build her own windmill to help support the electricity
supply of the farm, Macke recently installed an anemometer, a tool that
measures wind speed and direction.
“I told Angela I could provide her with Wind Rose Data collected over the
past year, which provides a pattern of how often the wind blows and at
what direction,” said Tom Gallery of North Wind Management, the
anemometer’s manufacturer.
Gallery says the ideal conditions the aerial spray company is looking for
may happen only once every two weeks, a small window that takes constant
checking of the daily wind forecasts.

It’s not the first time Ironwood Subdivision has sprayed for caterpillars.
Last spring, Simmons sprayed the same biological agents. Unaware a spray
was to take place, Macke contacted Simmons who told her he didn’t know
there was an organic farm within the proximity of the subdivision, adding
Macke was responsible for listing Light of Day on the Certified Organic
Farm Registry, a Michigan Department of Agriculture source that commercial
pesticide firms use to identify organic farms in the area.
Macke said she was unaware this voluntary website even existed; noting it
was confirmed by her certifiers Stellar Certification Services and Demeter
Biodynamic that Light of Day is listed on the Federal National Organic
Program website of currently certified organic farms.
While last year’s spray avoided the crop—as it was tested by the National
Organic Program—Light of Day faces the danger of losing its organic
licensing this year because Macke’s crops are now planted farther back on
the property, which includes partridge berry herb (Light of Day is the
only commercial grower of the herb in North America).
And despite a 700-foot buffer, as Simmons said he has estimated according
to aerial photos and GPS, Macke is taking steps to ensure no pesticide
lands on her crop.
“We plan to monitor if there’s a drift by videotaping and hanging litmus
collecting paper around the property.”
For Simmons, he thinks the situation has been blown out of proportion and
says spraying is necessary to keep the food industry moving, as well as
maintain home property values.
“We feel like we’re doing a good thing and believe in it. When someone
says I’m doing something wrong, it really bothers me because I would not
do that; because we want to be safe and good stewards, too.
“You can’t tell me these caterpillars don’t kill trees. I don’t care how
many letters you have behind your name. These things are devastating. I
think we’re called to subdue the Earth -- we’re over it -- and we have to
do our best to control these pests. I would certainly not want to live
with those worms. We had women--and this is no exaggeration--but they were
literally crying, begging for us to take care of these things. So we feel
like it’s a service that needs to be done.”
Meanwhile, Macke can only wait and consider her options if a drift were to
“When I’m up at two in the morning praying about this, it’s made me
consider the options…and I just don’t know,” she says, looking off in the
distance. “I’m not willing to start this again if it’s not 100 percent
organic. In my own belief, it’s all or nothing.”
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5