Don McGehee had planned on celebrating 100 years of organic growing at D and H Farm in 2016.
These plans have since been canceled.
CROMWELL — Don McGehee had planned on celebrating 100 years of organic growing at D and H Farm in 2016.
These plans have since been canceled.
McGehee, who grows plums and blackberries on 86 acres of land in northeast Seminole County, said he went out to look at his trees June 23 when he noticed big, wide tire tracks along the side of his trees and through his field.
He followed the tracks and soon discovered that someone had sprayed his trees with what was later discovered to be DuPont Escort XP Herbicide.
McGehee has rows of plum trees now dead and shriveled. With the help of a friend, he said he’s counted more than 200 dead trees.
Label information on Escort XP warns not to use the spray on desirable plants and that “low rates” of the substance “can kill or severely injure most crops.”
The spraying, McGehee said, was done by an independent contractor for the Canadian Valley Electric Cooperative.
In 2013, McGehee signed an easement with Canadian Valley allowing the company to maintain the land around an electric right-of-way that runs through his property.
It’s common for utilities to create such easement agreements with landowners so they can make sure no plants or structures interfere with their power lines.
The easement McGehee signed does not specifically mention the use of chemicals on his land, but does give the company permission to “cut down” trees within 15 feet of either side of the electric pole that are “dead, weak, leaning or dangerous.”
An investigator with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, according to McGehee, found that the sprayers had well exceeded the 30-foot wide right-of-way.
The department did not immediately return a call made by the Shawnee News-Star.
McGehee claims that when he signed the easement, he had reached an agreement with Canadian Valley over the phone not to use chemicals on his land.
“He (the Canadian Valley representative) said, ‘You don’t have to worry, you’re on a sheet of paper that says we’re not to spray anything on your land because it’s organic,’” McGehee said.
George Hand, general manager at Canadian Valley, said he was unsure if McGehee was on any kind of list.
“I know we’ve had places where people have asked us not to spray and we don’t,” Hand said. “I don’t know whether he’s on that list or not.”
McGehee said Canadian Valley came out the day after the spraying to look in to the claim.
Two days after that, McGehee met with Brad Bogle, co-owner of Langley-based Bogle Right of Way Service, the contractor hired by Canadian Valley to maintain the right-of-way on D and H Farm.
McGehee said Bogle explained to him that his men had found his gate open and drove in to his field to spray.
There is no gate leading into McGehee’s field, just a posted “No Trespassing” sign.
McGehee claims Bogle offered him $2,500 from his pocket to make the ordeal “go away,” in McGehee’s words.
“He said, ‘You take this and we all can just walk away,’” McGehee said. “I said, ‘That’s unacceptable.’”
Bogle declined comment to the Shawnee News-Star.
McGehee estimates the spraying incident has cost him more than $140,000 in cumulative damages, including plums, hay and other crops from this year and future yields.
D and H Farm has also lost its status as an organic grower.
“That affects the price,” he said. “Your organic products will bring a premium price compared to commercial fertilizer, commercial use. I don’t know what you want to call it, pride or whatever, but it really gets to me that I’ve lost that reputation now.”
The land has been in McGehee’s family for the last 98 years, and no pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals had been used on his land until now.
It will be three years before McGehee is allowed to re-apply for organic status with the Department of Agriculture and maybe longer until he is granted the distinction.
McGehee said he was advised by Canadian Valley to make a claim with the company’s insurer, which he has done. He said the insurer would then request damages from Bogle Right of Way but that he was still considering his own lawsuit against the company.
Hand said he did not want to speculate on the circumstances surrounding McGehee’s case. Canadian Valley’s insurer has already started an investigation into the claim, he said, and he expects to see their findings soon.
“I know what the allegations are,” Hand said. “I don’t know what the facts are.”
Hand explained that Canadian Valley receives many bids from contractors for right-of-way work every year and that they had worked with Bogle Right of Way in the past. He was unsure whether the contractor had ever worked in the area around McGehee’s property before.
Hand could recall only one other incident in which a landowner had accused a contractor of improperly spraying, and the circumstances surrounding that incident were still unclear.
Still, Canadian Valley tries to be accommodating.
“We try to work with the members to do what they want,” Hand said.
What McGehee wants now is hear from any other landowners who have had crops improperly sprayed.
He also would like Canadian Valley to institute a new policy that warned those along the right-of-way when the company would be coming out and if they wanted their vegetation cut or sprayed.
However, what he wants most of all is the one thing he can’t have back: His family’s organic legacy.
McGehee lives alone on D and H Farm. The D stands for Don, his first name. The H is for Heather, the name of his late daughter, who died in a 2006 car accident while seven months pregnant.
The farm is one of the last connections he has with his family’s past.
“Family history,” he said. “That’s all I got left, all I have.”