Are we drinking the pesticides sprayed on Wisconsin’s crops?

April 1, 2011

By Lynn Markham

Special Report: Pesticides in Wisconsin  food and water, part 2

Chris Malek grew up on an industrial potato farm, earned agricultural degrees from UW-Madison and UW-River Falls, and then worked as a potato agronomist for McCain Foods, the largest frozen potato manufacturer in Wisconsin.

Today, Malek runs a certified organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in tiny Rosholt, Wis., which provides weekly boxes of fresh vegetables to 50 families throughout the growing season. He grows 30-40 varieties of potatoes plus other vegetables, herbs, and flowers for restaurants and a year-round farmers market. Why the big change from industrial ag to organic?

potato picking - Matthew, Chris and Max

From left: Matthew Duffy (nephew of Chris Malek), Chris Malek, and his his son, Max Malek, who were phototgraphed digging potatoes in a field on the Malek Family Stewardship Farm located in Rosholt, Wisconsin.

In 2001 one of Malek’s cousins grew a small patch of potatoes organically—without synthetic pesticides. “Back in 2001 it looked like there was potential that you could make some money growing organic potatoes and other crops,” Malek said. “The next year I had an organic garden and went to the organic conference in La Crosse. What they said made a lot of sense to me. ‘Healthy soil means healthy food means healthy people.’ When you’re not applying all those synthetic chemicals you have less potential for contamination of groundwater and surface waters.”

Malek is one of a growing number of organic farmers in Wisconsin. Over the last decade, the number of organic farms roughly doubled to over 1,200. Yet they constitute only 1 percent of the state’s total farms and acreage.

Many farmers are reducing agricultural pesticide use through longer crop rotations, planting diverse and resistant crop varieties, cultivation, scouting, and other methods. But even so, in 2005 Wisconsin’s farmers reported using 13 million pounds of pesticides each year—a little over two pounds of pesticides for each man, woman, and child in the state.

Once a pesticide is applied, it will ideally only harm the target pest and then break down through natural processes into harmless substances. However, pesticides may also be absorbed by plants to become part of food, come into direct contact with humans during application, attach to soil particles that get tracked into homes, evaporate right into the air, run off into lakes and streams, or seep into groundwater.

A 2007 study estimated that one out of every three private wells in Wisconsin contains detectable levels of agricultural pesticides and their metabolites. Wells in areas with more cropland were more likely to contain pesticides, and often contained a mixture of multiple pesticides.


Based on data from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Only 16 of the 90 pesticides farmers reported using in Wisconsin are regulated in drinking water.

One of the better studied pesticides is atrazine, which is estimated to be in 12 percent of Wisconsin’s private wells. Atrazine has been linked to cardiovascular damage and reproductive difficulties in some people when consumed at levels over the drinking water limit for many years. At environmental levels, atrazine disrupts reproduction and reproductive development in wildlife. Male frogs exposed as tadpoles to atrazine at one-thirtieth of the safe drinking water standard develop both male and female sex organs. The U.S. Geological Survey announced in 2010 that fish exposed to concentrations of atrazine at levels found in streams near farmland had reduced reproduction and spawning.

In 2005, atrazine was found in 90 percent of the 53 Wisconsin lakes tested. A 10-year study of the Midwest corn-belt, including Wisconsin, found 11 pesticides consistently present in streams.

There’s an undeniable correlation between agricultural application and pesticides found in surface waters. When the amount of a pesticide applied to the land was reduced, the concentration of that pesticide in streams also decreased.

Eliminating their own use of synthetic pesticides is the solution organic farmers like Malek have embraced.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “You can vote with your dollars and support farms like ours that protect the soil and the water and bring healthy food to the table. Beyond voting with your purchasing dollars at a farmers market or joining a CSA, we’re also starting to think about how people can invest in local sustainable farms, rather than putting their money in a 401(k) where the money leaves your community.”

organic farms

Created by Lisa Morrison, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Pesticide Use
Created by Dan McFarlane from the Center for Land Use Education. 2005 CropScape data from USDA was multiplied by the 2005 Wisconsin average pesticide use per acre for each crop from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Pesticide-Well 3-10-2011 map

Created by Dan McFarlane from the Center for Land Use Education. 2005 CropScape data from USDA was multiplied by the 2005 Wisconsin average pesticide use per acre for each crop from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Lynn Markham focuses on how land uses affect water quality as a statewide specialist with the Center for Land Use Education at UW-Stevens Point, For the resources used to compile this story, see

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