Sky High Aerial Work To Continue

Aerial application, fungicide

It was a phenomenon by any measure, say all involved. The number of aerial applicators who took to the sky last year to apply strobilurin fungicides on corn made for one of the busiest years on record, says Andrew Moore, executive director of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA).

The group is still getting figures on how many hundreds of thousands of hours were flown. University Extension experts place the number at 10 million to 14 million acres treated in the Corn Belt, with yield gains as high as 16 bushels per acre logged for growers. BASF‘s Headline fungicide led the way, with 7 million acres treated, followed by Syngenta‘s Quilt and Bayer CropScience‘s Stratego.

But the rush of work also generated a host of challenges and problems, many of which growers, dealers, applicators, Extension, manufacturers, ag associations, and government agencies came together to solve over the winter months at stakeholder meetings.

“The pilots were hoping the wind would blow; they needed a rest,” chuckles Kay Harksen, co-owner of Harksen Aerial Spraying, Camanche, IA. Her husband Reynold and three other pilots faced “a siege of work,” clocking 12- to 14-hour days. Their story of fatigue is common throughout the Midwest, where fungicides had to go down on thousands of acres sometimes in the span of two short weeks.

Calling All Pilots

Steve Benoit, Benoit Aerial Spraying, Kankakee, IL, called the demand “horrendous,” explaining that his company works for 19 fertilizer dealers who support hundreds of customers. “I am a 40-year ag pilot and this is the first year I could not even fly my own airplane. I had to hire a pilot so that I could manage all that was going on,” he says. In fact, Benoit hired 12 other pilots from several states, including Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, and Minnesota to help with the load.

The South was a good source of reinforcements, as some regions there faced dry weather and fewer acres of cotton, releasing pilots to head north, explains Ralph Storm, Storm Flying Service, Webster City, IA. “It fit in nicely with their season. They were done with their crops and migrated toward Iowa for July.”

Storm, a grower himself, sprayed his 800 acres of corn first, then did aerial application in his “home area” for the same growers he has worked with for some 38 years. He employed two pilots of his own and called in a friend from Kansas who he had helped with wheat earlier in the season. Chuck Eckermann, pesticide bureau chief with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), reports that normally the state has 99 pilots certified; in 2007, 274 came in from out of state.

Though hurried, bringing in out-of-state pilots was a serious undertaking last year. Benoit says his temporary staff needed a thorough understanding of Illinois spray rules as well as company policies on how to apply to avoid aggravating the public. He admits investigating and pre-qualifying potential pilots is a “tasking job,” as he determines who a pilot has worked for in the past and if his work record is satisfactory. “I’m trying to protect a lifelong business of mine by hiring someone else to do it. And there’s a great deal of responsibility in order to satisfy my customer base.”

To satisfy his customers, John Townsend, Townsend Aviation Inc., Monticello, IN, plans to bring in three more airplanes and more pilots for ’08. He’s looking for help in creative ways, including running a banner ad on his company’s Web site, stating: “Fly in the Corn Belt with us this summer,” and “If you’re looking for summer work — we could use you and your aircraft.”

NAAA’s Moore says last year’s increased itinerant aerial work highlights the importance of reciprocal agreements among states allowing ag pilots to quickly cross borders. NAAA is working with EPA to develop an aerial category exam in the hope that each state will use it, increasing the likelihood of state-to-state reciprocity of licenses. At presstime, EPA had wrapped up writing the test and the association was working on a study guide. Moore anticipates both components will be ready by the end of 2008. “Then it’s just a matter of EPA working with the states and the states determining whether to accept it or not,” he explains.

Containment Concerns

Bringing in out-of-state applicators also raised concerns among some Midwest aerial businesses about proper containment set-ups. “These guys that came riding in on the ‘dash for Iowa cash’ were sometimes not attached to containment structures,” says Storm. He points out that he spent quite a bit of money a long time ago putting up containment, and “we should all be under the same rules,” he emphasizes.

Many Midwest applicators and allied industry members echo his call for a level playing field. The Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association (IFCA) took up the cause in Illinois because “halfway through last season, the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) started realizing there was very little adherence to containment regulations, plus numerous drift complaints were coming in from people,” says Jean Payne, executive director.

In fact, in some cases, the department was not able to track complaints back to the source, to the aerial applicator, to investigate. “If citizens don’t feel like they’ve got some kind of appropriate response, the next phone call is to U.S. EPA. The last thing we need is the public feeling our Department of Ag is unresponsive,” says Payne.

She estimates IDOA received 30 to 40 aerial drift complaints (but then, ground spraying averages 100 reports each year). Planes were doing application in some regions that rarely see the technique, and citizens may have been startled and sensitized by their presence. “Most of the time, probably 60% to 70% of the time, no violations are recorded because of investigations,” Payne explains.

Indiana’s Townsend said that 875,000 acres were sprayed in his state but only 10 drift claims went to the state chemist to be pursued.
The situation was similar in Iowa where Eckermann reports the agency investigated 49 aerial drift reports. One applicator had his license suspended, while 12 cases resulted in civil penalties, and 10 were dismissed. Fifteen applicators received warning letters, six got advisory letters, and five cases are still pending.

A Map To Less Drift

A good map can go a long way to reduce off-target drift. Benoit said his company got some extra help from Rockford Map Publishers, which has worked closely with BASF to create an electronic version of the Rockford plat book. He said it was much easier to pull maps from the computer than a fax machine all the time. (In fact, Rockford reports that one aerial applicator tried the new resource and said it boosted his efficiency by 30%, a gain equal to adding three planes to his nine-plane fleet.)

Kay Harksen handles the maps at her family’s business. “The grower brings us a government map, then I in turn draw our own map from that, adding little things — if there’s a garden or a grove of trees or horses nearby that pilots need to be aware of.” She also arms pilots with a township map, with fields marked.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship is working on a sensitive crop registry that would identify areas such as organic farms and high-value fruit and vegetable crops that could be damaged by drift, says Eckermann. He hopes the voluntary registry will be available by mid-summer at the agency’s Web site, www.iowaagriculture.gov.

Besides drift incidents, Midwest newspapers were reporting plane accidents. NAAA’s Moore reports 2007 saw 77 accidents, actually the third lowest number on record for any year since records have been kept. “And once we get the General Aviation Activity Report from the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) for 2007 later this year, it is very likely to show a significant drop of accidents per 100,000 hours flow for 2007 because of the heavy numbers logged as a result of treating the abundance of corn acres,” he adds.

Pushing The Window

Spraying of this “abundance” needed to be done within two to three weeks in the Corn Belt, depending on planting time and weather conditions, but Townsend in Indiana says his applications ran almost 30 days, thanks to late-planted corn. Still, he found the biggest challenge of the season was the time element. “It places a lot of pressure on everybody, the pilots and retailers that we work with.”

Some pushed the window a bit too early, causing damage called arrested ear syndrome, beer bottle, or nosing back. Grower John Reifsteck of Reifsteck Farms saw some neighbors who had booked early with aerial companies go ahead with fungicide applications, even when no disease was visible. He says they had been told if they didn’t commit, they couldn’t be guaranteed application — plus, they had already made a financial investment.

Storm speculates some growers, “being as efficient as they are,” tried to mix their Headline with their Roundup application in ground sprayers.

Dr. Gary Fellows, technical manager with BASF, cautions that the condition can be traced to other factors. “We also saw it with just herbicides where there was no fungicide at all,” he says. “And many geographic locations had problems with pollination,” a possible cause.

Fellows saw two consistent factors when fungicides were involved: an application was applied before tassels were fully emerged and an adjuvant was included in the tank.

Of Fuel And Fungicide

No matter when the aerial steamroller began, lots of fungicide and fuel needed to be on hand, and fast. Some aerial applicators stored chemicals on site. “Most of the fungicide is from our place,” says Benoit. “It isn’t feasible to have all our fertilizer dealers sit in line at the airport with all the different product. It’s pretty well got to be our product.” Then too, he had to arrange to have a semi-load of jet fuel brought in daily.

Townsend runs his business out of the White County Airport, where he is manager, and he chose not to range far from this base, to fly from a lot of satellite strips. He maintains a large fuel storage facility. In most cases the dealers he worked with would premix the fungicides and bring them to planes.

Retail dealership Brandt Consolidated, with locations across Illinois, played a huge role in helping the aerial firm it outsourced for spraying. The applicator started with three planes, then called in help from several states — to the tune of 17 planes at one point — to service about 400,000 acres total, a solid percentage of which was booked through Brandt.

“We had our employees helping out at his airstrip mixing product, delivering product, providing adjuvants, and fueling and loading planes,” says John Allen, retail sales manager. “It became a team effort.”

Last season Brandt’s Pat Schaddel, technical manager, even developed a Web-based order form to facilitate application bookings. The company’s 25-member sales team filled in cells on the form, then e-mailed it to the aerial applicator. The applicator liked the form so much, he asked to use it with his other retail customers. “It becomes a better tracking method than a copy of a plat book and a notepad stuck in the mail,” says Allen.

For ’08, Brandt programmers have added georeferenced map capabilities. “Now the aerial applicator is going to get the order form and the field information to complete the job in the same e-mail,” describes Allen.

Then And Now

The run of ’07 was not totally unexpected by some aerial applicators. Benoit says he saw growth coming because the fungicide truly worked to improve yields in two years of trials he tracked; plus, the price of grain allowed farmers to justify the cost of the spray.

In fact, Scott Schertz of Schertz Aerial Service, Hudson, IL, says the fungicide-on-corn program is something his company has been building for quite a while with various manufacturers. “It’s something we’ve actively worked on developing the market for the last 10 years. I had quite a few customers steadily increase using them as well as intensive farming practices to maximize the return on them,” he explains.

All of the applicators CropLife talked with were gearing up for more corn fungicide business this year — they’re just not sure how much more. “The market tells us that probably 12% to 15% of all corn planted got sprayed in 2007. I think the industry is looking at 20% to 25% in 2008,” says Allen. He anticipates business doubling for Brandt.

Indiana’s Townsend says: “We had some growers who thought they didn’t get the return that they did in 2006.” That was a wetter year, with more disease. “We did have some good yield responses, though, in ’07 — and what proves it is our bookings for 2008 are up,” he says. Truth be told, all work for his entire season was booked at the end of February.

In early March, Benoit Aerial customers were looking to book summer applications, but Benoit could not yet land on prices, to quote to some who wanted to prepay. His costs for necessities like fuel and insurance were still being determined.

“Plus, workman’s compensation on a pilot in the state of Illinois is 40% — that’s 40 cents of every dollar that a pilot makes is workman’s comp,” he says. “We really can’t sit here at this point in time and know exactly what our input cost is going to be per acre.”
Schertz, who strictly uses products from his own facilities, is expanding bulk buildings for the coming rush.

Many applicators CropLife talked with suggested deepening business relationships before the spraying starts. “Get with the aerial applicator you’re working with to try and give them a general idea of the amount of acres they’ll need to spray — so they can get enough equipment lined up to get that work done,” says Benoit.

Schertz says building that early relationship with a “quality local person” will be a boon when times get busy. Close communication with customers in ’07 allowed his firm to get 70% of growers’ maps done ahead of time, and allowed his three planes, plus the 11 he brought in, to be well organized.

In Indiana, Townsend says: “We know who’s going to grow corn, and we’re tackling the mapping situation early this year. That is the biggest logistical problem in this corn fungicide program, with such a tremendous amount of acres coming at one time.”

No matter the challenges for 2008, NAAA’s Moore encourages all aerial application stakeholders to stick together: “We’re all partners together in this agriculture industry and need to work together to protect it.”

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