When neighbors spray herbicides next to your organic crop

Living together with local resentments in Northern California.

  • The writer’s organic farm in the foothills of Northern California.

    Jaclyn Moyer

My neighbor would soon spray herbicides along the edge of my wheat field. It’s her right, the county ag inspector said. If I didn’t want to lose my organic certification, she added, I’d better mow a 75-foot-wide buffer zone along my land’s perimeter.

I looked at my wheat, nearly three feet tall and flushed with green, and imagined mowing part of it down. I’d planted the wheat in a 200-foot-wide strip tracing the fence line. I would lose a third of my crop.

• • •

I’d not yet met my neighbor when I learned of her plans to spray, but I knew she belonged to one of the oldest farming families on Gold Hill. They were farming here over a century ago, when the county led California in vineyard cultivation and produced 52,000 tons of pears in a single year. My neighbor and her husband still ran cattle, but no longer made their living farming. Vestiges of the family’s agrarian past faded: Blackberries swallowed pear orchards, swayback barns collapsed, tractors rusting into rust-colored dirt. Weeds frayed the edge of a gravel driveway. My neighbor wanted to spray to prevent the weeds from further encroaching on the drive — from burying it in the landscape as if no road existed there at all.

When my partner and I began farming on Gold Hill, my neighbor watched our progress from afar. We were young, new and organic. Worse, we leased our acreage from a land conservancy that terminated all existing grazing leases when it acquired the property, furthering local resentment between environmentalists and farmers. Now the environmentalists think they invented farming, I overheard the owner of the local farm supply say. Like my neighbor, this man belonged to an old-time farming family. Now he made his living selling inputs — mostly five-gallon buckets of Roundup — instead of growing pears.

• • •

My neighbor had not yet sprayed when, a week later, she walked up my driveway carrying something bundled in her arms. Found this cat out on the road, she said. Looks like it just got hit. The woman didn’t introduce herself, and neither did I — we knew who we were. I’d watched her drive past my farm for months, as she had likely watched me roll out lines of irrigation, or kneel to examine a blade of wheat.

I looked closely at the cat, its body bundled in a flannel work shirt. It wasn’t one of mine, but I’d seen it before. Yellow-eyed and ash-gray, it hung around my barn and hunted among my neighbor’s cattle, disregarding the fences between our lands.

That’s not my cat, I said. The woman said nothing; I repeated:  No, not mine. She stared at me as if my words were irrelevant, and I realized they were. The cat belonged to neither of us, but had been hit and abandoned on a road we shared. We stood together in my driveway, a dying cat swaddled in a work shirt, a bloom of burgundy staining the sleeve. I looked down at my boots, embarrassed at what I’d said, as if I thought I could simply choose which parts of a place belonged to me and which did not.

My neighbor held the bundle out like a casserole, and I took it into my arms. Freed of the animal’s small weight, the woman didn’t dust the wisps of gray fur from her hands, or rub away the scent of blood and cat dander. Instead, she shoved her fingers into her front pockets. Alright, she said, and then, Thanks. I watched her drive away and thought: Perhaps there were more ways to care for a place than I knew.

That evening I buried the cat in the ribbon of no-man’s-land sandwiched between my neighbor’s barbed wire and my deer fence — one strip of land, it seemed, we shared.

• • •

The next week, my neighbor pulled up again. Without getting out of her truck, she said she had an extra washing machine. Could I use it? she asked. Then she explained why she wanted to spray: Fire danger — one stray spark and the dry weeds could ignite. She put her truck in gear, said she’d bring the washing machine by, and then added, the truck already rolling forward: If you want to go over to my side of the fence and mow the weeds yourself, you can go right ahead.  I watched her drive out of sight, unsure whether she was doing me a favor, or asking for one. 

At dusk, I held open my farm’s gate while my partner drove our tractor up the road and onto the neighbor’s driveway. In the pearly gray light, he lowered the mower blade and drove along the fence line, leaving behind a wake of fallen weeds. 

Jaclyn Moyer lives in the foothills of Northern California where she farms vegetables and heirloom grains.

This story was originally titled "On Stewardship" in the print edition.

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