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Hubbard County farmer files complaint of soil fumigant fumes

A sign indicating a field under fumigation southeast of Park Rapids warns against entry. A neighboring farmer filed a complaint of dangerous fumes at his farm about a half mile from the site. (Kevin Cederstrom/Enterprise)

A Department of Agriculture official was called out last week to investigate a local couple's complaint of pesticides applied to an R.D. Offutt field near their farm southeast of Park Rapids.

Marv Koktavy reported Thursday, Oct. 6 strong fumes in and around the farm house located just off of County Road 11. Koktavy said when he returned home from truck driving that day about 5:30 p.m. he was in the yard when the strong smell of fumes hit him and he became "woozy." Marv and his wife, Peg, reported the smell to the Hubbard County Sheriff's Office which dispatched a deputy to the farm.

Marv said the smell was very strong and he felt the effects while working on his truck.

"If you take the strongest raw sewage and mix skunk juice with it you might get close," Marv said in describing the odor.

After speaking with the deputy Marv contacted a representative of Toxic Taters, who then directed him to contact the Department of Agriculture.

Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes did confirm his office received a complaint Oct. 6 and interviewed Koklavy but due to the nature of the incident, the matter will be handled by the Department of Ag.

Mike Fick, a chemical investigator with the Dept. of Ag, visited the Koklavy farm Oct. 6 along with Aukes. Fick said there is an open investigation and he is limited as to what he can discuss at this time. He did explain the type of application of the field involved in the complaint is soil fumigation where the pesticide is injected about 10 inches into the soil. It was not an aerial application where the pesticide is sprayed above ground.

A warning sign posted in the field indicates the chemical used is Vapam which is used for the suppression and control of nematodes, soil-borne diseases, soil-borne insects, weeds and germinating weed seeds.

According to the safety data sheet on Vapam, physical hazards of the chemical include inhalation toxicity, skin corrosion/irritation and serious eye damage/eye irritation. The information also lists it is hazardous to aquatic environment. The danger to humans and animals is it could cause skin burns and irreversible eye damage if inhaled or swallowed.

Marv Koklavy said when he was in the yard he did what he had to do on his truck and went into the house, where they still smelled the fumes. He said the day the pesticide was applied there was a 30 mph wind from the southwest blowing toward their farm.

Marv and Peg farm 160 acres of wheat and soybeans, and he's been an independent truck driver for 45 years.

"It was so windy that day, anything that went in was drifting way the hell away," Marv said.

He did some research on Vapam and said the first symptoms include eyes start watering, then gasping for air.

"I didn't start gasping but my eyes were watering for two days."

When contacted about the complaint, RDO released a statement saying, "Everyone on the R. D. Offutt farm team recognizes the importance of responsible crop protection product use. We take environmental stewardship seriously, and that's why we operate our farms at or below EPA and state established crop protection product limits. Any concerns regarding product use should be referred to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA)."

The statement included the MDA's contact information:

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did not seek medical attention and said they filed the report to, in part, inform people the type of pesticides being used on fields in the area.

Fick explained with this type of application a 4-wheel drive tractor with hoses is used for deep cultivation across the field. He said Vapam was likely applied to this field for next year's potatoes. Fick said complaints associated with aerial sprays during the growing season are more common but complaints with soil fumigation come in maybe once every other year.

As part of the investigation the Dept. of Ag will interview applicators to make sure they are licensed, check the chemical labels and make sure the required warning signs are in place.

The complaint was filed the same day Toxic Taters declared Oct. 2-8 "Farm to Family: Pesticide Free National Week of Action" on McDonald's and R.D. Offutt. Two years ago, the organization started with a statewide day of action. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday people from Massachusetts to California dropped off letters to managers and called for action at their local McDonald's.

The organization on Oct. 6 had a small group holding signs in front of the Park Rapids McDonald's location calling for action against RDO's pesticide use.