Before “Silent Spring” Debuted in 1962, Ag Pilots on the Great Plains Questioned Pesticide Safety

David Vail

In the 1940s, Donald Pratt became known as the “Spray King of the West." Above, crop dusting planes in Pratt’s P-T Air Service fleet.

It is easy to frame con­ser­va­tion as a clash between envi­ron­men­tal­ists and pol­luters. But this view can great­ly over­sim­pli­fy many com­plex choic­es. What does con­ser­va­tion look like when ideas about nature cut across polit­i­cal lines?

In my book, Chem­i­cal Lands: Pes­ti­cides, Aer­i­al Spray­ing and Health in North America’s Grass­lands since 1945, I explore how pilots, sci­en­tists and farm­ers devel­oped prac­tices for crop­dust­ing” on the Great Plains after World War II. This indus­try took shape years before Rachel Car­son pub­lished Silent Spring, a sweep­ing cri­tique of wide­spread use of syn­thet­ic pes­ti­cides, in 1962.

Chem­i­cal com­pa­nies made broad promis­es about these mir­a­cle” prod­ucts, with lit­tle dis­cus­sion of risks. But pilots and sci­en­tists took a much more cau­tious approach. Well before a nation­al envi­ron­men­tal move­ment emerged, local pro­duc­ers devel­oped their own ways to study safe­ty and health ques­tions as ear­ly as the 1950s. If pro­tect­ing agri­cul­tur­al health here meant using pes­ti­cides to meet pro­duc­tion goals, they want­ed to under­stand the risks too.

A cau­tious approach

After World War II, U.S. farm­ers began using new chem­i­cals, many devel­oped dur­ing the war, to fight pests. Grass­lands weeds like musk this­tle and field bindweed, and insects like corn bor­ers, threat­ened pro­duc­tion lands as mar­kets were expand­ing dur­ing the post­war eco­nom­ic boom.

Farm poi­sons seemed like a sil­ver bul­let” response. Just as insec­ti­cides like DDT had pro­tect­ed Allied sol­diers against dis­eases such as typhus fever, they could pro­tect fields at home, com­pa­nies like DuPont and Dow told farm­ers in adver­tise­ments, trade jour­nals and in-per­son sales.

But crop­dust­ing pilots, known as ag pilots,” and land-grant agri­cul­tur­al sci­en­tists didn’t all buy this mes­sage. They wor­ried that using pes­ti­cides might be just as dan­ger­ous as not using them. In search of answers, they attend­ed annu­al con­fer­ences held at uni­ver­si­ties and rur­al con­ven­tion cen­ters. At meet­ings like the North Cen­tral Weed Con­trol Con­fer­ence, which took place annu­al­ly start­ing in 1944, ag pilots and farm­ers could learn about new advances and debate cur­rent prac­tices. Records of these meet­ings show a kind of chem­i­cal stew­ard­ship” devel­op­ing on the Plains.

Crop­dust­ing pilots often pub­lished their own man­u­als for spray­ing schools. (Image: Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka at Kear­ney, CC BY-NC)

Poten­tial for good or harm

Many farm­ers and experts were well aware of how lit­tle they real­ly knew about pes­ti­cide and her­bi­cide impacts. Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka agri­cul­tur­al exten­sion sci­en­tist Noël Han­son cau­tioned in his ple­nary speech at the 1947 NCW­CC meet­ing in Tope­ka, Kansas, about the promise of agri­cul­tur­al chemicals:

We all know that it will take years of research, edu­ca­tion, reg­u­la­tion, man­u­fac­ture, dis­tri­b­u­tion of mate­ri­als, and plain good farm­ing in a sound agri­cul­ture and indus­try before the weeds that are now present can be most effi­cient­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly brought under con­trol. Lit­tle progress can be made until the bio­log­i­cal foun­da­tions … are bet­ter known.

Reporter Dick Mann observed in the Kansas Farmer that wheat farm­ers also wor­ried about the new pes­ti­cides and poten­tial impacts of aer­i­al spraying:

These chem­i­cals com­pare with some of the new mir­a­cle drugs in med­i­cine. They have the pow­er for tremen­dous good, but they also have the pow­er for great harm if improp­er­ly used. … With this infor­ma­tion as back­ground you can see that many per­sons are deeply con­cerned over the pos­si­bil­i­ties of this thing get­ting out of hand.

In Hays, Kansas, pilot Don­ald E. Pratt — known as the Spray King of the West” — estab­lished the P‑T Air Ser­vice, an aer­i­al spray­ing school that com­bined spray­ing edu­ca­tion with agri­cul­tur­al sci­ence. Pratt had his pilots learn as much as they could about the newest pest con­trol chem­i­cals on the mar­ket. His crew met with state ento­mol­o­gists and weed sci­en­tists to bet­ter under­stand crop-pest inter­ac­tions. Then Pratt con­duct­ed his own exper­i­ments on pri­vate test plots to assess effec­tive­ness and haz­ards. Many Great Plains pilots ran flight schools sim­i­lar to Pratt’s.

Rogue pilots and chem­i­cal bootleggers

Nonethe­less, some oper­a­tors cut cor­ners. Rene­gade pilots failed to pay atten­tion to wind direc­tion for tar­get fields. In my archival research, I found that their hap­haz­ard­ness result­ed in many chem­i­cal poi­son­ings in fields and communities.

Some sup­pli­ers devel­oped a process called incor­po­rat­ing” — mix­ing two or three dif­fer­ent pes­ti­cides togeth­er, then repack­ag­ing the adul­ter­at­ed poi­son and mis­la­bel­ing it as an entire­ly dif­fer­ent chem­i­cal. These prod­ucts either over-poi­soned farm­ers’ fields or had vir­tu­al­ly no effect on pests. They also threat­ened ag pilots’ pro­fes­sion­al reputations.

Car­i­ca­tures of farm chem­i­cal huck­sters and crim­i­nals from the 1970s. (Image: Kansas State Uni­ver­si­ty Libraries)

But rep­utable weed sci­en­tists and ag pilots con­tin­ued study­ing risks of aer­i­al pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tion. They also devised meth­ods to stop chem­i­cal huck­sters, such as design­ing indus­try cer­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ments and sup­port­ing aer­i­al spray­ing laws.

The Silent Spring’ era

Then came Rachel Carson’s best-sell­er. A key ques­tion in Silent Spring was how users applied agri­cul­tur­al chem­i­cals, espe­cial­ly insec­ti­cides. Car­son nev­er argued for com­plete­ly ban­ning pop­u­lar insec­ti­cides or urged farm­ers to stop using chem­i­cals entire­ly. But she called indis­crim­i­nate aer­i­al appli­ca­tion the best exam­ple of vast eco­log­i­cal dan­gers asso­ci­at­ed with DDT and oth­er farm chemicals:

Although today’s poi­sons are more dan­ger­ous than any known before, they have amaz­ing­ly become some­thing to be show­ered down indis­crim­i­nate­ly from the skies. Not only the tar­get insect or plant, but any­thing human and non­hu­man with­in range of the chem­i­cal fall­out has known the sin­is­ter touch of the poison.

For Car­son, health encom­passed humans, wildlife and the envi­ron­ment in a holis­tic way. She impli­cat­ed pro­duc­ers and the chem­i­cals they used in endan­ger­ing all liv­ing things. Farm­ers, ranch­ers, cat­tle, crops, water sup­plies and cities were all at risk. Silent Springsparked calls for reg­u­la­tion in the 1960s and 1970s, cul­mi­nat­ing in the cre­ation of the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency in 1970 and the ban­ning of DDT in 1972.

Many ag pilots pushed back, claim­ing they had already devel­oped prac­ti­cal meth­ods to min­i­mize risks. Pes­ti­cides were dan­ger­ous, but so were pests. Pro­tec­tion and safe­ty on farm­lands meant safe,” stan­dard­ized” agri­cul­tur­al chem­i­cal use.

Agri­cul­tur­al plane test-spray­ing Kansas wheat for drift haz­ards. (Image: David Vail, CC BY-ND)

Still on the treadmill

After DDT was banned, new and more tox­ic alter­na­tives suc­ceed­ed it — first organophos­phates, and more recent­ly, neon­i­coti­noids. But insect pests and weeds have devel­oped resis­tance to each new gen­er­a­tion of prod­ucts. Today many farm­ers are con­tend­ing with weeds that have devel­oped resis­tance to the wide­ly used her­bi­cide glyphosate — the lat­est step on this chem­i­cal-pest treadmill.

Farm chem­i­cals remain a key part of con­ven­tion­al agri­cul­ture, and aer­i­al spray­ing is still a cen­tral prac­tice for most large-scale farms on the Great Plains. Many pilots and farm­ers still pur­sue chem­i­cal stew­ard­ship, using GPS tech­nolo­gies to apply pes­ti­cides pre­cise­ly and use no more than needed.

But as cheap chem­i­cal solu­tions lose their poten­cy, agri­cul­tur­al exten­sion pro­grams increas­ing­ly are rec­om­mend­ing approach­es that include non-chem­i­cal tac­tics, like crop diver­si­ty and plant­i­ng prac­tices that inhib­it weed growth. These seem­ing­ly con­trast­ing views — using chem­i­cals to con­trol pests while seek­ing to min­i­mize envi­ron­men­tal dam­age — reflect the nuanced atti­tudes many Great Plains farm­ers and pilots have long held toward pes­ti­cides and herbicides.

(Farm­ers and crop­dust­ing pilots on the Great Plains wor­ried about pes­ti­cide risks before Silent Spring’” was first pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times under a Cre­ative Com­mons license.)

David Vail is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Kear­ney. He grew up in South­ern Oregon’s Rogue Val­ley and spent much of his youth explor­ing the state’s moun­tains and wilder­ness areas. He holds a BA from South­ern Ore­gon Uni­ver­si­ty, an MA from Utah State Uni­ver­si­ty, and a PhD from Kansas State University.
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