Farming on the outskirts of Clacton-on-sea and St Osyth, Essex farmer Guy Smith has over 50 residential gardens, one school, and one nature reserve adjacent to his arable fields.

“Those fields are sprayed on average five times a year,” he says.

“We have only ever had two complaints.

My father had one in the early 1970s when he was aerial-spraying DDT and the plane inevitably caught one of the gardens.

“Five years ago someone wrote to me saying he had the symptoms of OP poisoning (pins and needles in his legs) and suspected I was to blame.

I wrote back saying we had not sprayed OP within half a mile of his house for years.”

The problem Mr Smith acknowledges is that there is a lack of understanding and a growing wariness about the use of pesticides.

That’s why the best response is to be pro-active.

So what measures does he follow on his farm to allay concerns and to help the public?

Spray drift

First and foremost avoid spray drift into gardens.

When close to gardens watch the wind, keep the boom stable and not too high, optimise pressure and forward speed to avoid very small droplets prone to drift.

I always tell my operators (and myself): If you are not sure – don’t spray.

Buffers

I always leave 2m from crop to neighbouring fence but you may need to remind your neighbours – politely – that this is not abandoned land suitable for garden extensions or a general dumping area.

However, if you are going to put in non-farmed strips for ELS, set-aside or cross-compliance, then it is a good idea to put them where people will see them – ie up against gardens, roads etc.

I put lots of bird feeding strips against gardens and roads with colourful, bird-friendly sunflowers, quinoa, phacelia.

Chemical choice

When you have a choice of chemical, don’t just use the cheapest.

For example, Aphox is preferable (less harmful) to dimethoate for controlling grain aphids.

Notification

I am wary about notifying neighbours when I am about to spray.

Apart from the impracticalities, I want to ensure I do not unduly alarm people.

It is, however, a good idea to put out general signs about good farming practices and demonstrating care for the environment and the public alike.

I am a great believer in LEAF’s All on Board initiative which offers farmers a series of sturdy information boards setting out simply and clearly what they do in their fields and why they do it.

The boards cover 30 key areas of farming practice including cropping, fertilisers, energy use, and hedges and ponds.

Talk to your neighbours

Tell them about what is generally going on in the field next to them.

This does not just concern pesticides.

It can also address potential problem areas such as pigeon scarers, dust/noise from machinery, rape pollen, hedge cutting and so on.

I also remind people this is where their food comes from.

I explain how I care for and take pride in the environment of my farm and this links back into my bird food strips.

Complaints

If you do get a complaint, deal with it courteously and seriously.

Be open with spray records.

Be patient and polite.

Rudeness, dismissiveness and furtiveness will make the situation worse.

Society is going to ask more and more questions of farmers in the future.

Rather than ignore these questions let’s answer them coherently and effectively.

Advice

Do not dismiss the anti-pesticide campaign messages however strongly you may disagree with them.

Statistically there is a good chance many of your neighbours could think they have some sort of condition or allergy.

If you are confronted by a neighbour who thinks they have a condition due to pesticides, help them by pointing them to sources of independent advice:

Their GP or NHS Direct for example.

julian.gairdner@rbi.co.uk