A truck sits near the road at Emerald Valley Ranches in Caribou. On July 24 the farm was ordered to destroy part of its crop after lab testing found an illegal pesticide on the product. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

The discovery of an illegal pesticide used at an Aroostook County broccoli farm has at least one producer worried the action could taint the industry.

Emerald Valley Ranches of Caribou was ordered Monday to destroy much of its crop after state laboratory tests discovered the presence of an illegal pesticide on produce samples.

Chlorpyrifos, used on farms for decades, was banned by Maine and then the nation in 2021 because of health concerns. Emerald Valley admitted using the banned chemical, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Now that word has gotten out, the East Coast’s largest broccoli producer is afraid consumers won’t want to buy the vegetable.  

“We wouldn’t wish ill to anyone, but it’s disappointing and disheartening if someone would jeopardize Maine broccoli,” said Emily Smith of Smith’s Farm, which grows 4,000 acres of broccoli from Maine to Florida. “If people decide not to eat broccoli because [a farm] did that, then our crop is in jeopardy when we didn’t do that.”  

Though potatoes remain Maine’s No. 1 food crop, followed by blueberries and hay, fresh broccoli has become a valuable product. California produces most of the country’s broccoli, but nearly every state grows it, according to a report from the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center of Iowa State University.

Smith’s Farm has been in business since 1859 and has gone from potato farming to producing from 7,000 to 8,000 acres of broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and rotation crops, said Smith, who with her siblings is the sixth generation in the business.

The farm holds a state license to buy and use pesticides and works with the Maine Board of Pesticides Control, Smith said. Considerable training comes with licensure, and the board notifies license holders of any changes in pesticide uses.

Chlorpyrifos has been discussed for years and the farm stopped using it several years ago, she said. Licensed pesticide applicators would have known it was banned, she said.

“The Smith family leadership wants to reassure our customers of our commitment to integrity in food safety,” Smith’s Farm said in a statement. “We have faith in the regulatory agencies tasked to bring corrective actions in this case and will support them in any way we can.”

Emerald Valley Ranches, a fourth-generation Caribou farm, grows 2,700 acres of broccoli. The farm conducts internal audits, United States Department of Agriculture inspections and employs aggressive food safety standards, according to its website.

An anonymous person contacted the Board of Pesticides Control alleging misuse of chlorpyrifos at Emerald Valley, said Jim Britt, director of communications for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

The Bangor Daily News obtained a copy of a July 24 letter Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Amanda Beal sent to Drew Ayer of Emerald Valley.

Laboratory testing found broccoli from the farm contained chlorpyrifos, which the farm admitted to using in multiple fields, Beal said in the letter. She condemned the affected produce and ordered it destroyed on site under department oversight.

The department will sample all the farm’s broccoli destined for sale throughout the rest of the season, and any found to contain the pesticide will also be condemned, Beal wrote.

A company representative working at the farm’s office said they couldn’t speak to the Bangor Daily News.

Maine banned pesticides with chlorpyrifos in June 2021. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ended its use in August 2021, saying it could potentially cause neurological effects in children.

Breathing in the substance could cause other health problems such as headaches, dizziness, muscle weakness, nausea and heart rate changes, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. High levels of exposure could even cause sweating, seizures, coma or death.

The chemical has a “slightly skunky” odor, according to the National Pesticide Information Center, operated by the EPA and Oregon State University. It sticks to soil but usually isn’t absorbed into plant roots or groundwater until it breaks down, when part of it can be taken up by roots and water. The chemical is toxic to some birds, fish and bees.

In soil, the chemical can last for 7 to 120 days, but studies have documented it for more than a year after it was applied, according to the center. 

The Maine Board of Pesticides Control, which regulates and enforces pesticide licensing and application, added rules in 2022 prohibiting chlorpyrifos, with one exception: Licensed applicators could obtain a special permit from the board to apply chlorpyrifos products they purchased prior to Dec. 31, 2022.

Emerald Valley did not obtain such a permit, Britt said.

The Board of Pesticides Control inspects applicator records to ensure only legal, registered products are used, he said. Nationally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration randomly tests food items from stores to check for improper pesticide use.

“Due to today’s product tracking capabilities, foods found with improper pesticide use can be tracked back to the field of origin,” Britt said.

If the board suspects illegal use, a credentialed inspector will arrange a site visit, he said. Results of testing on any samples that are collected are shared with the farmer, as happened at Emerald Valley.

The pesticide board will continue to conduct routine inspections and those prompted by complaints, Britt said.

The trickle-down effect for consumers concerned Smith.

“If they looked at something on a truck, what was the label on it and where was that truck going, so the consumer can know?” she said.

It was not clear how much of Emerald Valley’s broccoli was destroyed or where it was headed for sale.

Star City IGA in Presque Isle does not purchase broccoli from Emerald Valley, said produce manager Jeremy Ouellette.

A representative from Shaw’s in Bangor said the store buys broccoli from Smith’s Farm and from Ontario. Hannaford Bros. in Scarborough did not respond to requests for comment.