MAINE TALES. “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Bridgewater, Maine. Circa 1998.
With the benefit of hindsight it would have just been a lot smarter to just pay the foolish $300 fine. However, following age-old tradition, organic farmers are afflicted with a condition in which they seldom choose the easy route.
Thinking and acting outside of the box has its costs. The title of one farmer-written book hints at the dilemma: “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.” It’s not that farmers are trying to be ornery. It’s just that our ideas aren’t always in sync with laid-down law. Or maybe the law hasn’t caught up to where farmers function.
Back in the early 1990s here in the East, Colorado Potato Beetles, the bane of Potato farmers worldwide, were out of control. When you figure that CPBs have co-evolved with nightshade family member Potatoes for thousands of years, and they like nothing better than to feast on poisonous Potato plants, it has evolved into one tough customer. Scientists have determined it takes as few as 10-12 generations for voracious CPBs to develop resistance to any new farm insecticide thrown at them.
In cool Northern Maine in most every year, we endure just a single generation of CPBs. But in Southern Maine – with their longer growing season – CPBs usually will produce two generations. And way down on mild Long Island, New York, the historic early Potato growing haven, farmers suffer through three generations most years. By 1991, CPBs in Long Island had developed resistance to every insecticide in the conventional farmer’s chemical toolbox. There were actual reports of Potato crop failures as the masses of yellow CPB eggs hatched, and the pinhead-sized larvae rocketed to adult size in a matter of days or weeks – depending on weather and temperature – fueled by voracious consumption of poisonous Potato plants.
In that crop crisis extremity, Riverhead, Long Island Potato Extension agent Dr. Dale Moyer dove into action. Working with local beleaguered Potato farmers, Dale invented a tractor-mounted Potato Flamer, powered by propane gas and designed to speed through the field at 4 mph. The Flamer was deployed to singe-kill egg-bearing female CPBs as they sunned themselves atop newly emerged Potato plants, while inflicting minor burn damage to the rugged Potato plants. Since each female is capable of laying up to four-hundred eggs per season, a timely takedown of female CPBs proved remarkably effective in lessening the hatch and decimating the numbers of hungry larva. It’s the insatiable appetite of the fast-growing larva which causes the most CPB defoliation in a Potato field. After experimenting with system variables such as distance between Flamer burner and plant, gas pressure setting and tractor ground speed, an effective system was invented and it proved invaluable in saving Long Island Potato crops.
Soon after, Dale was invited up to Winter Potato School in Aroostook County, Maine, to tell the tale of his new CPB flamer. Intrigued by the Flamer design and its possibilities, after his presentation I pestered Dale for component details and the phone number of his propane burner fabricator in Michigan. Wood Prairie then ordered eight burners, enough for a 6.5-foot solid flame curtain. That Spring with the valuable help of an open-minded local propane expert we fabricated a Flamer unit and mounted it on the front of a tractor. We mounted the fuel tank as far away as possible onto the rear tractor hitch. As promised, the Flamer did a nice job killing female CPBs. As an added bonus we learned it was also giving us excellent in-row weed control. Not long after, we were hearing reports of other New England organic farmers adopting the Flamers and after making minor modifications, successfully using their Flamer to topkill Potato plants ahead of harvest. We adopted this practice of ‘flaming tops’ in order to arrest Potato plant growth during the juvenile stage, locking-in extra vigor into seed tubers. That vigor enhancement resulted in better performance, stronger growth and higher yields in the next generation of Potatoes.
Some years later, on a misty Sunday afternoon I was pushing hard to finish flame-killing our field of Organic Seed Potatoes ahead of a heavy rainfall forecast to begin that evening. As I drove the Flamer approaching Kinney Road, I noticed a dark green pickup truck that had driven up and parked opposite the Flamer on the road. Turns out it was our friend, local Maine Forest Ranger Dana Beals. The first words out of Dana’s mouth were, “Jim, I hope you’ve got a permit. They radioed it into Island Falls.” Translated, this statement meant: I hope you have a Fire Permit. The spotter airplane (a newer, less expensive technology which put the final kibosh on mountaintop Fire Lookouts) making its north-south grid pattern flight saw the smoke from the Flamer and radioed it into the Maine Forest Service headquarters in Island Falls. Then Island Falls sent me out here to determine the source of smoke.
My reply was, “Dana, I’ve been flaming for five years without any problem. There’s no wildfire risk, so no, I don’t have a permit.” And I was telling the truth. Religiously and frugally, I shut off the Flamer fuel supply before I got to the end of the row. Where I turnaround on the headlands there was twenty-feet of bare-soil-buffer before there was any adjacent grass or trees which could theoretically catch fire. I did my best to explain to Dana the well-established Long Island Flamer technique and the safety of its operation as he had just himself witnessed. Unmoved, Dana said, “They know about you in Island Falls. I gotta write you up.” My reply was, “Don’t get yourself in trouble on my account, do what you have to do.”
As he attempted to write out my summons on his pad, the steady and increasing mist had so wetted his paper that his pen wouldn’t work. I bit the inside of my cheeks hard to abort a growing involuntary grin over the ridiculousness of this fire-safety-theater. Dana was a good man and a dedicated public servant. In no way did I want Dana to possibly think I was disrespecting him.
After handing me my summons, Dana drove off. The mist had morphed into rain and under the circumstances it was an easy call to end the flaming for the year. Next day I called our lawyer. Tom laid out the likely sequence of events going forward. Soon, I received notification of the day and time of my arraignment at the courthouse in the Shiretown of Houlton. It was to be in the middle of potato harvest. Back in those days we still dug with a John Deere- 2-Row Digger and picked Potatoes by hand into buckets. Since I was Diggerman, I went out extra early that morning and dug up enough rows so the pickers would have plenty of Potatoes dug ahead to keep them going.
I drove down to Houlton and entered the courtroom inside the hundred-year-old Courthouse. In the front row of seats sat a phalanx of a half-dozen burley, stone-faced Maine Forest Rangers, green pants, tan shirt, arms folded, Dana among them. Sober and grim-faced they sat motionless and stared straight ahead. Dana was the only one of them who had ever seen the Long Island Flamer in action. I was being charged with “Open Flame” without a Fire Permit. The objective reality of minimal fire risk had been replaced by officialdom’s wild imaginings of reckless usage of a renegade flame-thrower. Overreaction, face-saving and the official desire to make periodic public examples all came to mind. When asked by the judge I stood up and pled Not Guilty. And when he offered me a choice, this populist opted for a jury trial of my common-sense Maine peers.
Eventually a March trial date was set. All winter long, our lawyer attempted to negotiate with the District Attorney to try to get the case dismissed. Tom tried to argue the Flamer was just a new agricultural technology, developed and advocated for by the government. He argued campers are allowed a campfire in the woods without needing to first secure a Fire Permit for their “Open Flame.” And getting back to the topic of agriculture, in the entire storied history of the State of Maine, not one single farmer out of the 8000 who remained in the late 1990s had ever stopped to pick up a Fire Permit before they drug out their acetylene torch to make an “Open Flame” field repair on a piece of broken-down farm equipment.
At one point I provided Tom with a Cooperative Extension Service cassette video which Dale Moyer had commercially produced in order to educate farmers about how to construct and use this new and safe Flamer technology. Tom got the DA to sit down and watch the video with him, all to no apparent avail.
Finally, after months of meetings and negotiations, March had rolled around, and still there had been no movement. Then, just days before the trial was set to begin, the DA finally relented and indicated he would drop all charges if I were to promise going forward to get a Fire Permit before I flamed. Deal!
In the end, we spent way more money on Tom’s billing, despite his being an old school, generous, non-pecuniary kind of lawyer, than would have been the financial outlay for pleading guilty at the outset and paying the fine.
If age has generated any wisdom at all in this farmer’s life, it is to be more careful in picking my battles and to let go of the little things.