NEWBURYPORT — A startling pediatric study linking pesticides to the childhood neurological disorder attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD, is serving as the latest reason to buy produce locally, local farmers say.
A Journal of Pediatrics study published May 17 found that children with higher levels of the organophosphate pesticide malathion in their urine were more likely to have ADHD.
Farmers, such as Glenn Cook of Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, Dick Chase of Arrowhead Farm in Newburyport and Matthew Kozazcki of Tendercrop Farm in Newbury say their locally grown fruits and vegetables are far less likely to contain those kinds of chemicals.
For Chase, the findings weren't surprising, and he said if parents are concerned about their children being exposed to the various types of organophosphates, they can feel confident purchasing fruits and vegetables at his Ferry Road farm, since he does not use these materials at all.
"We do not use organophosphates whatsoever," Chase said. "Our fruit trees are sprayed one to three times in late May and June, right after petal fall, in order to prevent flies from laying eggs on the developing fruit. That is the only spraying we do on the farm."
Chase said he uses no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides, and instead tries to educate his Community-Supported Agriculture consumers that imperfect produce is the best produce.
"What we do with our CSA is people are learning to eat not for the cosmetic value of something, but for the nutritional value and for the safety of it."
Chase said his recently harvested spinach and beets have tiny holes in the leaves caused by flea beatles, and little tunnels in the leaves created by leaf miners. But he said his customers know that such minor flaws are preferable to eating something that might be unsafe. He said his farming methods, handed down by his grandfather, who received training from his grandfather before him, are successful because they were developed before the advent of agricultural chemicals. They plan their plantings around the dates when certain insects are apt to be active, for instance, and learn to tolerate some weeds.
"It's pre-organic farming," he said, which was taught to him before the need for organic farming. "That's the way he taught me to farm."
At Cider Hill Farm, owner Glenn Cook uses some of the less potent organophosphates in only rare circumstances. Cook said he uses them far less frequently than the farms who sell to grocery stores — simply because his farm is small enough to monitor his crop closely, and he uses a number of organic principles in his farming.
"Those guys will protect their crop any way they can," he said of the larger farms who sell to most grocery stores. "We're not a certified organic farm, yet I consider us probably one of the most careful and conscientious farms."
Cook said the materials found in the study linked to ADHD in children are not used every year at Cider Hill and only before the plant or tree begins to bear fruit.
"Anything I do is all early treatments, and then we just take it as it comes after that," he said.
Even though the U.S. government has found many insecticides to be safe to consume just 20 minutes after they're sprayed, Cook said he prefers to treat strawberries only at the flowering stage, and apples months before harvest. That is in contrast to the larger farms that have a higher demand for perfect, bountiful crops of fruit.
"They're far from organic," he said. "Smaller farms like our farm very intimately watch every crop."
Kozazcki, of Tendercrop, observes a similar minimal schedule of spraying.
"We use pesticides — we're not organic," he said. "We don't spray because we want to, but if we don't use something, we don't get a crop."
But unlike some growers down South, who have to spray their sweet corn up to 25 times in the growth cycle of the crop in order to keep pests at bay, northern farms like his spray only about five times in a sweet corn cycle. That creates a lot less chemicals on the end product, he said, which offers a good reason for customers to shop at his and other local farms.
Organic farms that are being touted for not containing the organophosphates measured in the most recent study use pesticides, too, he said, but they're just not the kinds of pesticides that are thought to be the most dangerous.
"It's not like they plant the crop, and it's magically beautiful," he said. "That's not the way it works. They use different chemicals. We'll use organic chemicals as long as they're working, but sometimes they're not working."
Having recently learned about the studies released on organophosphates, Kozazcki said he's going to be ceasing use of the material.
"Now that I know, I'll be looking for other stuff to do the same job," he said.
ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders have long been seen in higher degrees with children of farmworkers and others exposed to abnormally high levels of chemicals. This study was unique in that it proved a correlation between even low levels of chemicals in children's bodies with a higher incidence of ADHD. ADHD is thought to affect 3 to 7 percent of children in the United States, with boys affected at much higher levels than girls.
Chase said he was not surprised to read about the study, and he said that agriculture in the United States and elsewhere must integrate some of the processes handed down by his grandfather if it wants to feed the growing populace safely.
"We have to find a better technique, and some of that is going to come from the past," he said. "We can't go backwards, because we have too many mouths to feed on the planet. But incorporating that is going to be key to feeding the world without poisoning them in the process."