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How Herbal Flea Wipes Got Us in Hot Water

It was the spring of 1993 and the Feds were after us.

Castor Oil production line
My children, Kelsy and Addison Raap, on one of the first castor oil production runs.

"When it comes to regulatory nightmares," said the editor of the Burlington Free Press, Vermont's largest newspaper, "the federal EPA wins hands down. Consider the way the EPA just hit Gardener's Supply of Burlington, a company dedicated to marketing environmentally sound products, for a $28,000 fine for supposedly violating the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodentcide Act".

The crime? Marketing an herbal flea wipe as a "completely organic flea and tick repellent" and a citronella candle as a device that "adds a festive glow to your deck or patio while warding off mosquitoes and other flying insects". Our violation was using the words "repellent" and "wards off" to describe products that had not been specifically approved by the EPA for use as insecticides.

Conducting insecticidal efficacy tests to achieve EPA registration can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. This process is appropriate to prove the safety of new chemically-based products, which can be fairly scary in terms of environmental and health risks. But the all-natural, plant-based products we were selling had been used for centuries to help people deal with pest problems.

Unfortunately, the EPA was not allowed to use common sense when it came to regulating insect controls. Every product being sold commercially that claimed to control pests had to go through the standard permitting process. Interestingly, our "violation" of the insecticide labeling laws was brought to the attention of the EPA by a chemical insecticide company. They certainly did not want to see anyone gaining competitive advantage by avoiding the high cost of registering an insect control product.

We paid the lawyers and we paid the EPA fine, but we did not stop there. We worked through Congress to help gain approval for a modified registration process that supports rather than establishes obstacles for the distribution of safe and effective natural pest control products.

With this new, more common-sense registration process in place, we got back to work solving our customers' pest problems. Though the University of Michigan had proven the effectiveness of castor oil as a mole control (moles don't like the scent and leave an area that's been soaked with diluted castor oil), castor oil was not readily available for this use. Using the new expedited pest control registration process, we gained approval to sell castor oil to control moles. We set up a small packaging operation to make this smart pest control available (See the photo, above, of our "factory production crew."

Our commitment to offering innovative, effective, and environmentally-friendly gardening solutions began more than 25 years ago—the day we opened our doors as a business—and it is still the guiding force in our business. In fact, on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day (just two years after the EPA fined us!), Gardener's Supply was one of a handful of New England businesses to be awarded the EPA's Environmental Merit Award.

If you have an earth-friendly product or product idea that solves a common gardening challenge, we'd love to hear about it. Please write to us at info@gardeners.com

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