Lessons from Chemical Lands: Finding History in Agricultural Places

My recent book Chemical Lands highlights the role of agricultural health, environmental risk, and toxicology played in the post-World War II Great Plains agriculture and aerial spraying industry in particular. A chemical-risk standard began to emerge in the record for me that I discovered shaped the region in the early days of the postwar era. It attempted to balance economic goals with the health of fields and communities. Part of this standard focused on chemical toxicity while another part addressed a nonhuman form of “poisonous injury” that came from pests, primarily weeds. A third source of contamination came from what I call rogue sprayers and chemical bootleggers. So, pesticides were changing the regional landscape in intended and unintended ways. And farmers, Ag pilots, and weed scientists had to adapt.


  • Take an artifact’s point of view

o understand objects (seeing them as historic evidence) as thoroughly as possible, and through that understanding, to gain a new perspective about a time period or a rural or farm process.

  • Look for intersections

  • Blend scientific and scholarly approaches

o Conservationist Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949): “A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the community, and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna, and flora, as well as people . . . cease being intimated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays.”

o Environmental Historian James Sherow: Humans and non-humans, he writes, are part of the “biosystems in which they live; the difference between them and other species arise only in the degree to which humans are aware of their place in their environments . . . human beings are a conscious part of environments. A biosystems approach, then, encourages us to pursue primary sources in new way—to see a continuum rather than a dualism. By adding a biosystems approach to our historical research, “we can acquire a new way of seeing history, and in that vision, a route toward a better understanding of ourselves.”


  • I explore these ideas pages of agricultural science reports; land-grant university archives; field journals; farm journals; oral histories. Two sources for us to consider in our working group:
  • SOURCE 1: USDA Yearbook of Agriculture revealed:
  • “Science and Technology Outreach for the Common American”

o Scientific Expertise mixed with Practical Knowledge

o Latest Experiments, Advances, and Innovations

o Warnings and Challenges

o Encourage relationships between farmers & agriculturalists

o Inclusion of Regional & Local Studies

  • SOURCE 2: Proceedings of the North Central Weed Control Conference revealed:

o Pesticides (herbicides and insecticides) created new technologies, attitudes, and dangers in the Postwar Great Plains.

o Aerial Spraying: Precision; Standardization; Agricultural Toxicology and Health

o The concept of Agricultural Health that had guided Great Plains farmers and pilots became something different than Ecological Health after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Narrating the Connections

  • Connecting traditional sources with public history approaches, Chemical Lands contributes to how we can interpret agriculture, environment, science and technology histories for variety of constituencies in a variety of places. Here are some ways that the book explores these concepts:

Weed scientists blended expert knowledge and agricultural professionalism with a local ideas of crop needs and farmer concerns. They also influenced local ideas of environmental risk by helping develop a farmland standard that linked natural toxicity with synthetic forms. By studying the ecological relationships between noxious plants, crops, and agricultural chemicals, weed scientists helped formalize the standards landowners and pilots would hold regarding toxicity and risk when spraying their fields. As the politics of environmental health changed in the aftermath of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, the study of noxious plants encouraged a vision of agricultural health that required poisons for protection.

Farmers had to guard their fields from these rogue plants because ignoring them or working around them only brought fields to peril. Healthy grass was imperative to farmers. Improving their fields not only improved livestock populations but it represented the first line of defense against larger weedy invasions that seemingly attacked at every instance. The first step in reclaiming farmers’ fields was collaboration with agricultural experts.(1) Landowners had long been searching for better ways to kill injurious plants. Yet, with the rapid expansion of agricultural chemicals and an equally numerous amount of farm poison salesmen touting the “magical” qualities of pesticides, farmers needed a more reliable ecological context to guard their fields.

Many attended the 1947 North Central Weed Control Conference (NCWCC) in Topeka, Kansas to meet agriculturalists and aerial applicators to discuss the latest chemical advancements and the dangers of rogue plants and insects. The rapid progression of the herbicide 2,4-D had nearly usurped DDT in popularity because its toxic selectivity proved much safer to crops than the broad but dangerous complications of dusts. Noel Hanson, an experiment station weed scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and president of the NCWCC that year, emphasized in his opening remarks that pest control rather than eradication had to be the focus. A change in thinking was a first step in addressing many farmers’ and agriculturalists’ concerns over the rapidly growing use of new chemicals and their applications. If correctly understood and applied, Hanson told the crowd, pesticides had the potential to create a farming utopia.(2)

However, Hanson warned the audience that pesticides were also potent tools that followed their own path apart from the user’s intentions or a company’s specifications. Pesticides offered great promises but they could also have deadly consequences, so new relationships between farmers, scientists, and aerial applicators were needed to bring them under control. The weed man’s utopia could be realized in just a few years, but “we all know that it will take years of research, education, regulation, manufacture, distribution of materials, and plain good farming in a sound agriculture and industry before the weeds that are now present can be most efficiently and economically brought under control.”(3) For “any attempts to control or eradicate them must be dependent upon knowledge of their structures, and habits.”(4) Efforts by farmers, agriculturalists, or aerial applicators to rid fields of noxious plants or to establish laws to regulate farmlands could not be carried out without an understanding of their biological frameworks, their ability to create larger pest presence in the environment, and their interactions with control technologies. The public, according to Larson, is only now becoming “weed conscious. Little progress can be made until the biological foundations of weed control are better known.”(5)

So, Larson and other scientists believed that the toxicity of weeds could not simply be their poisonous qualities but farmers, aerial sprayers, and agriculturalists needed to focus on the injurious and invasive qualities of the plant as part of that standard. Additionally, weed experts and aerial applicators had to carry a fair amount of entomological knowledge since many insects used weed communities as a safe harbor to attack crops. They also needed a farmer’s understanding of the land and region. Certainly this respect for the local landowner promoted amicable legal relationships when it came to noxious weed law enforcement, but weed scientists and Ag pilots needed a local view that came with working the land or living in the region. This ability of noxious weeds to quickly overtake fields, pastures, and rangelands and potentially destroy that season’s crops meant that weed scientists and applicators required the instincts of a farmer, not just the biological/ecological knowledge of a specialist.

Both weed scientists and aerial applicators had to conform to the patterns of agricultural poisons and the environmental characteristics of the region or risk hazards to their crops, communities, and personal lives. Learning from the noxious ones meant mixing chemicals according to the biological properties of weeds or insects, paying attention to how poisons interacted with the larger environment, how they transformed it, and the hazards of misuse. Speaking about the various formulations of 2,4-D for aerial application, L.L. Coulter argued in his 1949 conference paper “From Test Tube to Aerial Operator” that pilots needed to employ this kind of analysis in their application process: “Aerial application of herbicides is not a barnstorming proposition; it is a science requiring that the operator be as well grounded as possible in the technical aspects of the problem which he is undertaking to control.”(6)

Aerial sprayers must, Coulter maintained, “consult with local agricultural authorities [weed scientists] who are known to have carried out research on the problem with which he is concerned. It cannot be over emphasized that success in aerial weed control depends on the sound application of the results from field testing by well-informed pilots.”(7) In essence, many weed scientists and aerial applicators as well as a growing number of farmers realized that their production ethos had to conform, as their tools, methods, or spraying polices, to the chemicals they used. A farmland toxicity standard began to emerge that would guide the region’s users toward standards, technological adaptations, and behaviors that followed the contours of the chemical-agricultural landscape.(8)

Throughout the 1950s, Ag pilots, weed scientists, and aviation engineers such as Donald Pratt and Fred E. Weick considered practitioner advancements as they guided the design a standardized agricultural spray plane (the Ag-1) that kept pilots safe, fields healthy, and communities from harm. The main task for pilots in this decade was to develop adaptive spraying technologies and hone dispersal skills that were based as much on the interplay between environmental and chemical relationships as on their customer contracts. For aerial application to be economically effective for farmers, its aeronautical performance had to reflect crop and pest lifecycles, climatic and meteorological events, and correct dosages for acreage.

The Ag-1’s main purpose was pilot safety, chemical efficiency, and adaptability. Drift dangers were not the only hazard—sprayers were risking their lives. Simple innovations such as a vertical tail guide-wire to the cockpit and a sharpened landing-gear kept the plane from getting tangled and the pilot safe from possible electrocution. The Ag-1’s most important advancements, however, addressed chemical hazards. Effective aerial treatment meant handling pesticides safely, following labels, and understanding how the poisons worked in the larger environment. By the late 1950s commercial aviation companies began building industrial lines of super spray planes

Then came Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Central to this work was the question of how users applied agricultural chemicals, especially insecticides. Carson never argued for a complete banning of DDT; nor did she suggest that farmers stop using chemicals entirely. She did, however target indiscriminate application, especially in aerial spraying. “Although today’s poisons are more dangerous than any known before, they have amazingly become something to be showered down indiscriminately from the skies. Not only the target insect or plant, but anything—human and nonhuman—within range of the chemical fallout has known the sinister touch of the poison.” For Carson, health was ecological—much like Leopold’s ideas, it encompassed humans, nonhumans, and the environment in a holistic way.

And many of these critiques came from the same practices that Great Plains pilots saw as a “third poison,”: Rogue sprayers and Chemical Bootleggers seemed to represent the entirety of chemical agriculture. Renegade operators frequently failed to pay attention to wind direction, geography, or target fields. This kind of intentional haphazardness resulted in many chemical-poisonings in fields and communities. Chemical bootleggers, on the other hand, developed a process called “incorporating,” by which they would mix two or three different pesticides together and then repackage the adulterated poison as a different chemical. Another scheme was mislabeling. In an effort to create the kinds of poisons farmers or Ag pilots wanted, dealers saved labels from previous containers and reattached them to new barrels filled with entirely different chemicals.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, responded by encouraging more research, professional relationships, and endorsed a regional weed control plan that included synthetic aerial application as well as integrated pest management. Also many of the NCWCC meetings began to emphasize work-shops allowing farmers, applicators, and agriculturalists to test and study the latest herbicides, rather than simply learning about their toxicological properties after the fact. responded to these changes by building new agricultural aircraft models that also highlighted safety, risk, and economic efficiency. Due partly to the new politics of the Silent Spring era as well as to the longer-standing relationships with pesticides in the region, aircraft manufacturers, such all highlighted their model’s safety, ability to anticipate environmental variability, and swath dispersal accuracy as ways to reduce drift and mitigate contamination.(9)

With Global Positioning System technologies in the 1980s, pilots were able to secure swath accuracies, chemical selectivity, and anti-drift protection in ways that earlier pilots had only hoped to achieve. These advanced units incorporated pest and crop histories, environmental changes, and typical weather conditions for the region. Perhaps Kansas Ag pilot Jim Floyd (a pilot I interviewed for book) put it best: “[GPS was] better for the farmer, it provided more even application, and it was better for the environment.”(10)

So these types of environmental, technological, and biological factors associated with chemical agriculture defined the development of aerial application, quickly making it a central tool in chemical farming of the Great Plains. But since pesticides and pests followed their own logic according to their species and synthetic construction, a new type of agriculturalist—the weed scientist— also appeared as pesticides were increasingly being sprayed from the air, absorbed in the ground, and poisoning pests. Thinking like weeds and chemicals in the grasslands meant adapting mixtures, machines, and attitudes to fit their toxic tendencies rather than simply believing that if some pesticides worked, then more must be better. However, the view of agricultural health and chemical risk that landowners, pilots, and weed scientists expressed about spraying their fields that resulted from these relationships would change in the aftermath of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Their vision would have to adapt to a new national politics and ongoing regional realities that increasingly saw environmental health to mean something different than agricultural health when it came to pesticides.

  • NEW COLLABORATIONS & UNCONVENTIONAL PARTNERSHIPS ARE NEEDED. “Pilots, landowners, scientists, policymakers, activists, and historians will need to forge unexpected alliances and unconventional partnerships to secure the future health of agriculture as well as of the greater environment (pg.135).”

Very Brief Notes

1 Ibid.

2 Noel Hanson, “Past, Present, and Future in the North Central Weed Control Conference,” Proceedings (Topeka, Kansas: December 10–12, 1947), 12.

3 Ibid., 9.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., Coulter.

7 Ibid; E. H. McIlvain and D. A. Savage, “Spraying 2, 4-D by Airplane on Sand Sagebrush and Other Plants of the Southern Great Plains,” Journal of Range Management 2 (April 1949): 43–52.

8 W.E. Loomis, “Basic Research in Weed Control,” Proceedings (Sioux Falls, South Dakota: December 6–8, 1949), 101–103.

9 See “Crop Dusting from an Agwagon,” Kansas! 1 (1968), 7–8; William Schweizer, The Ageless Ag-Cat: The Forty Year History of the Ag-Cat Agricultural Airplane (Bluffton, South Carolina: Rivilo Books, 1995); Fred E. Weick, From the Ground Up: The Autobiography of an Aeronautical Engineer (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 307–327.

10 Ibid.


  1. Julia Brock says:

    Hi David,
    Chemical Lands is an important resource for sites interpreting twentieth-century agriculture. To your point about objects, I can see how, for example, the Ag-1 or a container one of the mislabeled or “bootlegged” pesticides you mention would powerful objects in telling the story of changes in technology, the growth of concerns over environmental health, or the advent of the weed scientist.
    I was interested in your quote from James Berow on using “biosystems” as in interpretive framework. I mentioned in another post the possibilities of foregrounding “agency” of nonhuman things in agricultural history, and think it could be an interesting angle in the stories we tell.

  2. Debra A Reid says:

    David – You seem to have condensed a main argument from your book, Chemical Lands, and seek the next direction to take in your research and public engagement. Paraphrasing – it seems that you seek to document (through artifacts – including landscapes – the ways that agricultural ecology changes in diametrically opposed ways to the ways that environmental thought changes). I could also through in the idea that farming ecosystems change. Deborah Fitzgerald wrestles with the consequences of this with her “Remembering Food” article. Local food systems (as do many foraging traditions) as synthetic chemicals destroy ecosystems. Humans adapt as do plants and other animals, but not all survive. That, combined with associated genetic modification creates a very different agricultural ecology (changed agricultural health as you put it). This matters for interpreting food as well as agriculture because of use in perishable food production (which leads to poisoning of migrant laborers), and in grain grown for human and animal consumption (corn). It also relates to interpreting fiber given the use of synthetic chemicals and aerial applications on cotton crops.
    Rachel Carson receives much attention as the author of Silent Spring, which prompted action to stop use of toxic DDT, but William Vogt argued for ecological health earlier in his 1948 publication, Road to Survival. A recent book juxtaposes Vogt with Norman Borlaug, agricultural biologist widely associated with genetic modification of wheat species that facilitated the Green Revolution (see Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World (Knopf, 2018), reviewed by Bill McKibben in the New York Times Book Reviews, “Can Science Save Us?: A double biography captures the essential debate about the future of the Earth.” ( Feb. 4, 2018).
    Much to think about as we try to create compelling scenarios to help the public grasp the connections between agriculture and the environment (and how food, fuel, and fiber production goals put both flora and faunal ecosystems at risk).

  3. Leisl Carr Childers says:

    The expectations that farmers, weed scientists, and aerial applicators had of what fields ought to be like and what they ought to yield dovetails quite nicely with Cathy Stanton’s discussion of paradoxes and the way Amrys Williams inverted the relationship between technical experts and rural producers. There’s a dialogue here waiting to happen!

  4. Amrys Williams says:

    The object that I found most interesting here is the agricultural spray plane, which seems like a great unexpected artifact to use in interpreting agriculture. You don’t expect one at a farm museum. It gets at some great issues around how we think of farming as non-technological somehow, despite it being an important site of technological change, innovation, and meaning-making. When I was going through the Southern Oral History collection at the Smithsonian, one of the interviews that stopped me in my tracks was the one with the three Mississippi spray pilots. I wasn’t expecting it, and it stuck with me.

    Unsurprisingly, I am very interested in the questions you raise about the knowledge possessed by different groups of people in this agricultural system—and how they intersected with one another.

    The histories of regulation here are important—I’m glad you brought that up. We need to think more about interpreting agricultural policy and the state more generally.

    And I want to know—do you have a repository for those oral histories you did for the book? =)

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