Dirty Deeds: Suspected herbicide unleashes horror on central Victoria

Many turned to gardening during the COVID lockdown. But hundreds of gardeners in central Victoria were devastated when their backyard vegie patches and permaculture food forests died after the addition of soil purchased from a local garden supplier. It is alleged that the organic soil they purchased was anything but.

Neil Foley and Rani Watts commiserating next to the dying potatoes.

Neil Foley and Rani Watts spent most of 2020 pumped about organic gardening. They invested time, money and energy into creating a backyard fruit and vegetable garden on their property in Metcalfe, Victoria. With an eye to self sufficiency, they planted an edible food forest in March and Neil attended a permaculture design course at Castlemaine House every Wednesday for several months. In September they propagated seedlings in a greenhouse.

The couple purchased 10 cubic metres of premium garden soil (70%), and mushroom compost (30%) from a local garden centre. Neil took ten days annual leave. Rani also took some time off work. They hired labourers to help move the large volume of soil from out the front of their property to the garden beds. The soil was delivered in late October, 2020.

Neil and Rani made the raised vegie beds with a mixture of their own compost, and the purchased soil. Once the soil was laid they waited a week or and then followed the maxim: plant tomatoes after the Melbourne Cup (once the frost risk has passed).

Neil noticed something awry just days after planting. The tomatoes were not flourishing. They had stunted growth and curled in, wilted leaves. Neil and Rani added worm castings (fertiliser produced by earthworms) to the soil to see if that would help. They tried adding worm wee and their own compost and organic fertilisers. They thought maybe the stress of moving the plants from the greenhouse to outside might have been to blame.

With excess tomato seedlings, Neil planted some of the seedlings at his work. He didn’t realise at the time that they were a control group; that he was unwittingly conducting a bioassay. Almost immediately Neil noticed a difference between the seedlings he planted at home and the seedlings he planted at work. “The exact same seedlings went into completely different soil [at work] at the same time and they’ve all gone gangbusters immediately.”

“The potatoes were even worse,” says Neil, “They were coming up almost like fern fronds.” They show me the potatoes; several wicking beds of spindley half-dead looking atrocities with curled in dessicated leaves. Neil’s family are farmers in Ireland. A failed potato crop is a bit close to the bone.

A week later Neil heard other students at the permaculture design course talking about the same problem. “There were different theories. No one really knew what it was.”

Neil phoned the garden centre. He spoke to an employee who admitted that they had received a few complaints. Shortly afterwards, the business owner called Neil and claimed the issue with the soil was the fault of “a young guy” who had been working there at the time and had got the mix wrong. The owner told Neil that he had sacked the young employee and that there was nothing he could do.

Neil says the owner had an “over-the-top, aggressive and volatile” response. He offered Neil a few cubic metres of sandy loam to mix with what he had purchased. Neil tried to explain that was too little too late; he had already taken ten days annual leave and had a garden full of dying plants.

Neil says that the owner of the business told him that the mixture of compost to soil has been “too rich”. In other words, the business owner was claiming that Neil had been sold soil with an acidic pH. Soil pH is measured on a scale of 1-14, with 7 as the neutral mark. The ideal range for most garden vegies is between 6 and 7. If it was the case that Neil’s potatoes were dying because the pH was wrong, it could be fixed with the addition of more neutral or alkaline soil.

The following day Neil decided to drive back to the garden suppliers to speak to the owner in person. In Neil’s day job he is trained in the art of de-escalation and he thought he might be able to diffuse the owner’s hostility. “He played on this line that the mixture was too compost rich.” The owner told Neil that he could have 2 metres of soil to mix with the ten cubic metres of soil they already had. That night, the business delivered 2 cubic metres of sandy loam soil out the front of Neil and Rani’s house that evening to mix with the existing soil together with an invoice for $120.

Rani, who is a scientist, points out that the soil pH line of argument is not supported by the facts. Neil and Rani tested the pH of the original soil in several places and it was 6.9. Rani says, “If it was too compost rich you would expect that it would have a more acidic ph.” So what was going on?

“After being in denial I finally realised that something was significantly wrong with the soil,” Neil says. He posted photos of his dying plants on Castlemania, a facebook page for the local area.

Half a dozen people contacted Neil straight away. The following day a woman contacted Neil to let him know about the closed facebook group ‘Aminopyralid Central Vic.’ The suspected culprit is a hormone-mimicking herbicide called aminopyralid. At the time of writing the facebook group has 154 members.

Many of the affected people bought their soil from landscape gardeners in the Castlemaine area, but the common element was the supplier for the soil was the garden supplier.

Sean, not his real name, is a horticulturalist of high standing in the community. He is one of the people who figured out why Neil’s potato plants were half dead. In 2005, Sean attended a soil symposium featuring Dr Elaine Ingham, a leading international soil microbiologist. During the conference Dr Ingham spoke of a problem US farmers were encountering with a class of pyradine carboxylic acid herbicides. These herbicides are used in farming to kill broad leaf plants that compete with grasses in a pasture. Sean’s memory of photographs shown at the conference was triggered by the plant damage in the photos Neil had posted to facebook. Sean recognised “the cupping of the leaves, the really disrupted growing tips curled up into this clumpy little thing.”

Aminopyralid is highly soluble and will move through the soil. According to a 2011 factsheet published by a non profit organisation called Beyond Pesticides, “Aminopyralid persists in soils with a half-life ranging from 32 to 533 days, with a typical time of 103 days.”

The horticulturalist is wary, “It is too tempting for unscrupulous dealers out there. Agricultural waste shouldn’t be toxic.” Rani says, “We wanted an organic garden. We companion planted things that keep the pests away so that we didn’t have to use pesticides.”

I tried to buy seedlings and soil at the start of the pandemic lockdown but supplies had all sold. I was caught short. I ended up building a Victory garden out of kangaroo shit, dirt, food scraps and furious optimism. In late September I visited a friend Carrie who had just had some great looking soil delivered. I remember feeling jealous of that soil. But it turns out she purchased it from a landscaper who purchased it from the garden supplier that Neil had used. Weeks later she started texting me photographs of her dying plants.

Carrie walks me around her garden of horrors.“I noticed the tomatoes and the beans first.” At first she thought a virus had infected everything. I point at the worst looking pea plant I have ever seen and ask Carrie to describe it. “It is the phantom of a purple podded pea.” She points, “Look at this tomato. What a Frankenstein. I don’t feel safe eating them.” Carrie says, “The thing I would really like to happen is for people to not be allowed to use this herbicide. It is obviously really powerful and it if it damages this many gardens in one community it is really stressful to think about it going out in to the broader environment.”

A 2008 booklet published by the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reads: “How can you tell if you have herbicide carry-over in your fields? Plants grown in soil samples can tell.” They sure can.

The herbicides in the Picloram, Clopyralid and Aminopyralid group are widely used in Australia on pastures and cereal and canola crops. Grasses are unaffected by the herbicide because it is designed to target broad leaves in pasture grasses and hay fields. For example, in a field of hay intended for feeding horses farmers might spray herbicide to kill the thistles. The Australian Pesticides and Veterniary Medicine Authority (APVMA) has approved herbicides containing aminopyralid under names like ‘Hotshot’, ‘Starane’ and ‘Grazon Extra’.

You would think the world would be waking up to the dangers of herbicide by now. (During the Vietnam War picloram was one of the ingredients used in Agent Orange.) According to wikipedia “Gardeners who use dung as fertilizer should check to make certain that the animal source has not grazed on picloram-treated hay, as the dung still has broadleaf-killing potency. Residues of aminopyralid in manure, composts or soils can cause damage to plants at levels as low as one part per billion.

The problem of soil contamination is not isolated to a small area of the Victorian goldfields. Reports abound of people in suburban Melbourne and Northern NSW experiencing similar issues during their COVID gardening. In a blog post titled ‘Herbicide Alert’ published by Organic Gardener in 2013, Penny Woodward writes about a gardener from Mudgee experiencing the same problems after fertilising her garden with manure from some nearby stables.

It has been a known problem in New Zealand, the UK and US for years. In 2009, organic farmers in the US blamed herbicide-contaminated maure and compost from non-organic farms and dairies for severe crop losses. A 2011 Guardian article by George Monbiot rages against aminopyralid’s effect on vegetables. Type ‘Aminopyralid’ into YouTube and you will be inundated with videos of devastated gardeners with contaminated compost.

The problem is so common Dow AgroSciences published a factsheet that begins, “Dear garden enthusiast: Thank you for contacting Dow AgroSciences about damage to your garden plants. The following information may help you and Dow AgroSciences determine if one of our herbicides, aminopyralid, might be involved…”

Neil sent the owner of the business an email asking for a refund and an acknowledgement and for them to remove the contaminated soil from their garden. Neil asked for a $960 refund. This amount covers the cost of the soil and the delivery and the costs of the labourers. Neil and Rani didn’t factor any of their costs into the amount.

Herbicide residue can last in soil for years. At the time of writing several customers are awaiting the results of expensive laboratory soil tests. Until the results come back, the only thing people with the suspected poisoned soil can do it pull up the plants, stop watering and every few days turn the soil to expose it to the sun. The herbicide is broken down gradually over time by exposure to UV.

Sean the horticulturalist suggests mitigating the soil contamination by planting grasses like sorghum and millet. I tell him that Neil and Rani have planted corn. He says, “But then ‘Would you want to eat it?’ is the question.”

Some more questions: How did suspected herbicide residue find its way into the organic soil? And did the owner of the garden supplies company know about it when he sold the soil?

In a depressing twist, in a 2009 post on Indymedia Ireland a concerned citizen from Cork Food Web warns others about aminopyralid. So Neil’s family’s potato crop on the other side of the world is under the same threat. It’s a small aminopyralid contaminated world after all.

The EPA are investigating the matter and the business has stopped selling the soil.

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Author’s note: There Has Not Been A Publishing Event

I pitched this article for consideration to a newspaper on December 22 2020. Hearing nothing back from that newspaper I submitted it to a second newspaper on January 5 2021. (It is poor form as a journalist to submit a story to multiple publications at once.)

While the editor at the second newspaper had the decency to actually engage with the piece and reply to me they wrote, “my feeling is that, without the results of the expensive lab tests, that can confirm what actually happened, it’s too soon to tell this story.”

On January 13 2021 ABC Bendigo ran a short radio story where they named the soil business and said that the EPA were investigating. I emailed the editor to ask if they could publish my story now given that the ABC had already named the business involved. They reiterated that without the results of the soil tests they would not publish the piece.

On January 19 2021, I received a response from the first newspaper that I submitted to saying “I have passed your pitch on to the paper’s editors for consideration and they or I will keep you posted.” I heard nothing back despite two follow-up emails, in one of which I explained that the ABC had named the business involved.

On February 15 2020 the ABC ran a story about the soil contamination. I was scooped. My feelings at not being published in a timely fashion are such that I am seriously considering abandoning the traditional publishing avenue to become a professional blogger.

In fairness, I can see that from a legal standpoint it appeared risky to publish the story without evidence of soil contamination. But I wanted the public interest angle—the fact that hundreds of people had dead gardens—to mitigate the risk.

In early January the EPA collected soil for testing from the garden centre, requested the product be removed from sale and analysed the sample results of the product. After testing the EPA stated that there could have been an issue with product control either from the original supplier or during mixing at the garden supplier.

The EPA concluded “there has not been a pollution event according to the Environment Protection Act 1970, EPA is therefore, not the appropriate regulatory body to take the matter further but has referred it to Consumer Affairs Victoria.” I imagined how Neil and Rani felt reading the line, “there has not been a pollution event.”

This raises a whole new series of questions. Namely, why did the EPA take soil samples from the business selling the allegedly dodgy soil and not from the gardens of the hundreds of complainants? And also, isn’t hundreds of people with dead gardens proof enough for a newspaper to run a story? Apparently not.

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