1974: Diggora (Vic). Pesticide: Acrolein, DDT, Mevinphos.

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“In hindsight, we had not picked an ideal time to enter farming. In 1974, January, normally a droughty month, gave forewarning of what was to come with 132mm of rain. When rivers overflowed their banks, the locals surrounded their towns with sandbags in a desperate attempt to stem the rising waters. Our farm was hard hit: not by a river, but by the drainage channel which passed through a siphon at our boundary before tunnelling under the main irrigation channel. A large pipe that had been installed the previous year, at the insistence of the former owner, still could not handle a freak 529mm of rain during the cropping season, and the channel backed up to flood nearby farms.

The water authorities targeted our drainage channel for special attention. They sprayed it with herbicides so that weeds would not impede the water flow. They blitzed the channel until its banks were sterile, denuded and crumbling, and dead fish floated belly up, shining like a silver-scaled carpet and clogging the siphon. I remember the jeeps trailing huge herbicide vats, spraying along the easement by our house, and how more than once I packed Guy and John into the car and went away to escape the sickening smell. Our bore had been sunk beside that drainage channel. We usually collected rainwater from our roof for drinking, but pumped from the bore when the tank ran low.

Another time, a herbicide was added directly to the water and allowed to wash downstream. Our neighbour, Lionel, was told by one of the government workers that they had to drop the chemical in the channel from a bridge on the main road, because it was too explosive to carry across country. And then Lionel collapsed when the fumes wafted up from the channel near where he was working. In later years, when we were discussing events with Lionel, we came to suspect that this particular herbicide was acrolein – because the warnings we received to remove stock from the channel, and our indirect discovery of the chemical’s explosive nature and its extreme volatility, all match what we now know to be the properties of acrolein.

We used no chemicals in our own cropping routine, but simply relied on the traditional cycle of fallow and rotation to conserve moisture and destroy weeds. Most irrigation farmers did not even use herbicides in those days. They slashed the weeds in their drains, so much so that tractor-drawn drain cleaners were one of Bernie’s standard engineering lines. Now, everyone clears drains the quick-and-easy way, with herbicides. Mechanical drain cleaners are as obsolete as horse-drawn machinery.

The face of the tomato industry has changed even more rapidly. Sadly, the era of the small tomato grower has passed. Instead of signing with growers for five acres here and ten acres there, the canning factories now contract to farmers who plant hundreds of acres. Where our growers planted, hoed, and picked by hand, machines now plant and harvest, and herbicides control the weeds. Both methods, however, relied heavily on chemical pest control.

I remember how the spray plane would work down the paddock beside our house, zoom in low, spray a strip, lift, turn, and spray the next strip until the pilot covered the entire crop. Often he would turn above us, with his spray jets still operating, blasting our house and vegetable garden – even the babies’ nappies drying on the clothes line. We may have been unafraid of these routine spray-runs (hopelessly naive I would call it now), but we certainly had no desire to drink the stuff. I can remember Bernie perched on the roof, disconnecting the spouting, and scrubbing the spray off before the next rain washed it into our tanks.

We will probably never know what concoctions blitzed our channels – our every attempt to find out has been fobbed off – but we do know that DDT and mevinphos were sprayed on and around our house. Even then, DDT had been banned across North America whereas here in Australia its toxicity was recognised only by a thirty-day withholding period between spraying and picking. So we did feel uneasy seeing bins of tomatos stacked at our gate the day after the crop had been sprayed. Although DDT was the first line of defence in the grub war, pests were already developing resistance to it: Bernie can remember one of our growers re-calling the plane for a double-strength blast when the bugs survived the first dose. When that, too, was ineffective, they tried mevinphos.

Mevinphos was then nothing more than a name to us. Now we know it as a neurotoxic organophosphate, one of the most deadly pesticides ever concocted.” Source: Scribe Chemical Crisis – One Woman’s Story – Humanity’s Future. Diana Crumpler 1994.

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