Orem resident Denise DeVynck has poured her time, money and energy into turning her yard into a self-sustaining food forest. DeVynck sounds proud when talking about her permaculture garden, which is overrun with thousands of plants, 65 fruit and nut trees and 35 different berry and fruit species.
Gooseberries, elderberries, jostaberries, honeyberries, nanking cherries, red and yellow cornelian cherries. DeVynck pauses to remember the other fruits. Buffaloberries and sand cherries, she adds after a moment.
“That’s a lot of berries to remember,” she said.
After six years of maintaining and cultivating a self-sustaining ecosystem, DeVynck, who is director of the Utah Valley Permaculture Classroom Gardens and Greenhouse and who has taught hundreds Utahns how to grow their own gardens, believes her “personal heaven” is threatened by pesticide drift.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines pesticide drift as “the movement of pesticide dust or droplets through the air at the time of application or soon after, to any site other than the area intended.”
According to the EPA, pesticide drift “can pose health risks when sprays and dusters are carried by the wind and deposited into other areas” and can injure crops.
“State and local agencies receive thousands of complaints about drifting pesticides each year and spend substantial resources investigating drift complaints,” an EPA webpage on pesticide drift said.
Last week, DeVynck drove past a neighboring property on her way to buy netting to cover her elderberry bushes to stop birds from eating the blooming flowers. She noticed a pesticide commercial applicator truck parked outside and saw an employee spraying chemicals in the backyard. Given that it was a warm and windy day, this made DeVynck nervous.
“You can’t spray (pesticides) when it’s windy,” she said. “It causes pesticide drift.”
Within days, the leaves of DeVynck’s apple trees were curling and her Barlett pears and sumac berries were changing color.
“It was black,” DeVynck said in an interview Thursday, remembering a discolored pear she discovered. “It turned our fruit that was growing so abundantly black. The leaves, the branches. I never saw something kill something so easily.”
DeVynck filed a complaint with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, the agency that regulates pesticide application. Pesticide Program Manager Henry Nahalewski said agriculture officials took samples of the potentially contaminated fruit and plants on Wednesday.
Nahalewski said Friday that the investigation was ongoing and that the department was waiting to get back the test results of four samples.
According to Nahalewski, both commercial licensed applicators and everyday citizens are required by federal and state law to follow pesticide and herbicide label guidelines. Some products have labels that warn against applying the pesticide or herbicide when it is too hot or windy.
“The rule basically says that you can’t drift,” said Nahalewski. “You’ll be held responsible for any drift that you cause.”
Though it varies year to year, Nahalewski said the Department of Agriculture and Food has seen a “spike” in complaints about pesticide and herbicide drift.
“This year, we’ve had many more complaints than usual for drift cases, which usually are the majority of the cases, anyway,” he said. “Because, oftentimes, when there is an issue it’s because someone applied when it was too hot or too windy. And this year, because we had such a long, cold spring, once it stopped raining and warmed up, some people started applying to catch up with their schedules, even though, oftentimes, it was too windy.”
When she first noticed her plants and fruit were dying, DeVynck immediately sprayed microbes into the soil and started cutting off the dying grapevines and tree branches.
“So I had to butcher all my trees to try to save them,” she said.
When asked if she believed her permaculture garden would recover, DeVynck said she wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know,” said DeVynck. “I’ve never dealt with chemicals. This (property) has been organic for 42 years.”
Standing in the hot sun with a blue expandable garden hose in hand, the Orem woman tears up as she tries to keep her dying plants, which she spent years growing, alive. She notes that people “from all over the world” have come to see her garden, which has been featured on gardening and outdoor YouTube channels.
“Tens of thousands of people have seen this,” said DeVynck, using her hand to shield her eyes from the afternoon sunlight. “This was an amazing, amazing feat to have done this. And it can be wiped out like this. For spraying for stupid lawn weeds.”
More information about the Utah Valley Permaculture Classroom Gardens and Greenhouse can be found at http://permaculturedesignschool.org. DeVynck said she is accepting donations, which can be made on the website, to help her garden recover.