SPRING CREEK — For farmer Julie Teneralli, one of a growing number of organic farmers in Madison County, it’s a problem.
Use of chemical herbicides to control brush under utility lines puts her organic status at risk, Teneralli says.
But officials with French Broad Electric Membership Corp., the utility that serves Teneralli and other customers in Madison, Buncombe, Yancey and Mitchell counties along with areas in East Tennessee, say the new spraying program is being carefully controlled and will have minimal impact on the environment.
Teneralli learned recently the company plans to spray next month under lines that run through her 35-acre Dancing Doe Farm in the Spring Creek community near Hot Springs .
“Basically, I will never be able to be certified organic,” she said.
To get certification as an organic farm, the property must be chemical-free for three years. Teneralli, who grows vegetables and nursery plants and raises goats, said she’s only three months away from meeting that requirement.
Madison County has 1,500 small family farms and the highest number of organic farms in North Carolina.
Teneralli said she asked French Broad’s district manager, Greg Fowler, to be exempt from the spraying but was denied.
“I understand the expense of having people come out to cut the brush, but I think there should be an exception if it affects our livelihood,” she said.
The issue has been brewing since last fall, when French Broad began using Rodeo and Polaris brand herbicides. The company’s maintenance workers previously had been hand-trimming brush.
The utility was the last in the state to begin using herbicides, Fowler said, but using chemicals finally became a financial necessity.
“Our right-of-way maintenance is our biggest maintenance expense,” he said.
“We’re trying to keep our bills down for our customers.”
The company is spraying a 40-foot-wide easement under power lines to keep brush from growing into lines, he said. Workers also still hand-cut some brush.
Other customers also have complained about the spraying, Fowler said. But he said the application of the chemicals is carefully controlled, with workers using backpack sprayers instead of trucks or helicopters, which are sometimes used by other utilities.
Glyphosate-based Rodeo and Polaris are among the least toxic herbicides available and are even approved for spraying in water, though the company has no intention to do that, Fowler said.
“The chemicals we have in our households are more toxic than what we’re spraying,” he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers glyphosate to be relatively low in toxicity.
Progress Energy spokeswoman Martha Thompson said Progress also sprays herbicides along its power lines, but she said the company will make an exception if a customer want no chemicals used and has a legitimate reason.
The company has exempted organic farms, she said.
“We need to maintain our rights of way so that we can maintain dependable electric service,” Thompson said. “We absolutely have to do it, but we don’t want to be any more disruptive than we have to be.”
Teneralli said the issue is pretty dire for her. Any chemicals near her crops will derail her organic farm.
“The No. 1 question I get at tailgate markets is, ‘Do you spray?’” she said. “There are a lot of organic farms in Madison County. A lot of farms are going to be affected, and they don’t even know about this.”