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  • Chemical Lands: Pesticides, Aerial Spraying, and Health in North America's Grasslands since 1945 by David D. Vail
  • Amy M. Hay (bio)
Chemical Lands: Pesticides, Aerial Spraying, and Health in North America's Grasslands since 1945. By David D. Vail. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2018. Pp. 208. Paperback $39.95.

In Chemical Lands, David Vail recovers an overlooked history of the ways postwar agriculture depended on the use of aerial equipment to apply pesticides to increasingly monocultured crops in North America's grasslands. In six chapters, Vail discusses the creation of a "chemical landscape," the emergence of a new kind of experiential scientific knowledge, the advancement of specialized aviation, the development of new understandings of risk and a new political climate, and the growth of an international network of agriculturists farming grasslands in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand. In the process, he convincingly argues for the importance of an agricultural land ethic that encompasses both the needs of the land and of the people who make their living from it.

Chapters 1 and 2 describe the emergence of the "chemical lands" of the Great Plains. While the title indicates the book will be a post-1945 history, it appears to be somewhat of a misnomer. Vail rightly discusses developments in chemical science, aviation, and farming prior to 1945, and the book concentrates primarily on the 1940s and 1950s in the postwar period. The book's focus on the North American grassland, generously defined as stretching from Canada down into northern Texas, offers a history that complements the work done by Pete Daniel on pesticide use in southern agriculture and Steven Stoll's study of industrial agriculture in California. Farmers in the Great Plains worked hard to keep their land healthy even as they sought to maximize crop production. They recognized the need for pesticides as necessary in a landscape that included locusts, bindweed, and cutworms. Farmers accepted the need for chemical poisons to combat what they considered to be natural ones—weeds that stole nutrients and [End Page 992] sunlight from crops. The use of chemical pesticides like DDT and the growth inhibitor 2,4-D coupled with concerns about toxicity meant that farmers began educating themselves even as they looked to new "weed" scientists, chemical manufacturers, and airplane pilots to help navigate spraying hazardous chemicals on their crops.

Chapter 3 examines the emergence of professional pilots and developments in aviation technology. Kansas airman Donald Pratt, founder of P-T Air Service, embodied the new experiential science espoused by airmen, who argued that a knowledge of both chemicals and agricultural practices were needed to properly apply pesticides. Among the skills were experience in agricultural flying, calculating chemical applications, and evaluating regional environmental conditions. Chapter 5 continues the story of aviation technological advancement in the development of the Ag-1 plane prototype. The Ag-1 was designed to create a "flying tractor" that was responsive to regional variation, increased pilot safety, and minimized chemical exposure.

Chapter 4 notes the need for a different kind of product promotion by chemical companies, in part because of the practical toxicological knowledge displayed by farmers and sprayers. The altered regional sales pitch does support Vail's argument of grasslands farmers' more nuanced consciousness of chemical hazards, although it may be too generous to chemical manufacturers. Even as elected officials sought to help professional agricultural aviation with the development of new planes and technologies, politicians also debated increasing regulation of chemical pesticides.

Chapter 5 highlights the significant differences in regional agriculture while discussing the development of national programs to develop agricultural aviation. Tensions grew with attempts to set national standards and regulations. Rogue, untrained pilots and dishonest chemical dealers—who sold adulterated and mystery mixtures of pesticide chemicals—caused problems everywhere, but most farmers wanted a state response versus federal regulation. The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 intensified questions concerning pesticide use. In the end, the balanced approach taken by Great Plains agriculturists did not survive national politics or the new understanding of environmental health that emerged in the 1960s. In his discussion of this, Vail offers a partial explanation of how farmers ended up allied with the chemical industry...


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pp. 992-993
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