Got ‘R Done

Aerial application

Rev ’em up, folks — the nation’s aerial applicators answered all challengers this season. To any naysayers who doubted that these flyboys could cover all the extra corn acreage brought on by the ethanol boom, well, excuse them for saying “eat my dust.”

Even though the final numbers aren’t in yet, the 2007 growing season will likely go down in the record books as a very successful one for U.S. crop dusters, according to the National Agri­cultural Aviation Association (NAAA). And that’s no small feat — the load was certainly heavier than usual this season in many areas, due in no small measure to the increased corn acreage and to Mother Nature’s generosity in some regions of the country.

“Obviously, the main activity was in the Midwest with corn,” says Andrew Moore, NAAA executive director. “Plus there was moisture in certain areas — Texas had a lot of moisture — and the applicators I’ve spoken to have had, for the most part, a good season. I talked with some folks in the North­east in mid-September; they planted a lot of corn so they expected to have a very decent season.”

Weather caused the Southeast and Far West to experience a slower, below-normal application season, Moore says. But for many of those operators, this provided the opportunity to help their busy brethren in the Midwest — and balance out their own seasons to boot.

Pinch-Hitter Comes Through

When a friend called for help with Midwestern acres, Matt Crabbe was having a slow season due to drought conditions. Sole proprietor of Crabbe Aviation LLC in Mechanicsville, VA, Crabbe jumped at the offer.

All told, he spent three weeks servicing Midwestern corn and soybean fields. “We sprayed around 20,000 to 25,000 corn acres in mid-July with fungicides and fertilizer for foliar feeding,” he says. “I got back home the first of August, and have been busy since. Then the Midwestern growers had aphids in their soybeans and I went back out there.”

What did Crabbe, an active member of NAAA and several regional associations, learn this season? “We have to study the corn runs to better prepare ourselves,” he says. “The friend I was helping is a pilot, but during this time he didn’t fly, he just ran the operation. At one point, he had 11 aircraft working, spread out over a 40-mile radius. That’s quite an undertaking. It’s hard to organize all those planes to cover all those acres in one week.”

Show And Tell

But the 2007 season proved it can be done, says Rod Thomas, owner of Thomas Helicopters Inc., Gooding, ID and current NAAA president.

“We knew in advance that there’d be plenty of spraying to do,” he says. “When asked by the crop protection companies last fall if we could handle it, we said we could. We’re going to obviously be prepared to treat whatever necessary. This season shows the corn community and the ag community in general that aerial applicators can get the job done. Operators were signing up work well in advance, and contracted with other flyboys to help.

“You’ve got to remember that the additional corn acres came at the expense of other acres — cotton and other commodities we would have been treating — so the equipment was available for the corn acres,” Thomas says.

However, the type of application request was often different this year, points out Rick Reed, sole proprieter of Reed’s Fly-On Farming in Mattoon, IL.

“This is the first time this much work came in of this nature — not a rescue effort, but speculation by the grower that he would get a return in the price of corn to make this fungicide application a viable option this year.”

Reed’s takeaway from the season included concerns about Asian soybean rust. “If and when Asian soybean rust hits Illinois, it’s going to be difficult to cover every acre on a timely basis, even using both air and ground. That’s a little disconcerting,” he says. “There were lots of planes going in Illinois, they covered maybe 25% to 30% of the corn in the state this season. Now figure the acres of soybeans we’ll have to cover in a 2-week period if rust hits.”

Flying’s Future

“I do think that if commodity prices hold, we’re looking at another good year,” says Moore. “It probably will continue that way into the next few years, particularly with corn and the demand for biofuels,” he adds.

Utilize Local Expertise

The National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) stresses that supplementing ground spraying with local aerial operations, if possible, is in the industry’s best short- and long-term interests. In some areas of the Midwest, there have been concerns that retailers did not always hire the local aerial operation, even when it was available.

“We’ve been advocating to the crop protection product manufacturers that when they’re working with their purchasers of product, they emphasize the importance of working with local operators,” says Andrew Moore, NAAA executive director. “This is because the local aerial application operators are best equipped to do the work. They know the landscape. When bringing in out-of-state pilots, they’re the best teachers to let the incoming pilots know the more sensitive areas and areas to be most careful around. They’re the ones that are up to snuff on state regulations. And they’re probably the ones that have the proper secondary containment built, etc., because they’re established businesses and well-versed in local rules and players and whatnot,” Moore says.

“All of this expertise is what’s going to be best for the industry in the long run,” he emphasizes. “Because if this corn run is going to keep up, then aerial operators are going to have to spray more acres in these areas and bring in some folks to help out, and they want nothing but good will for the service they’re providing.”

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