Forage 2017: Flying low– Crop dusters fly with precision
April 25, 2017
"Come quick kids! The spray plane is coming!"
For farm and ranch children who grew up watching small planes dive out of the sky, unfurling long rolls of "toilet paper" into fields as markers, crop dusters were the stuff of wonder.
Today GPS has replaced paper location markers, and the planes are bigger and faster. But the job is still the same – to protect fields from invaders, be they weeds, pests or fungus, and maximize yields in production agriculture.
Darrin Pluhar owns Plu's Flying Service Inc. out of Ekalaka, Mont. He grew up watching his father fly spray planes, and helped with the work as soon as he was old enough. After obtaining a degree in ag aviation from the University of Minnesota-Crookston, he's now in his 29th year of spraying. The majority of Pluhar's business is done in Montana, spraying herbicide on dryland crops, mostly wheat, as well as doing rangeland pasture work. When the Montana season wraps up around July, Pluhar, who maintains his spraying license in nine states, heads south or to the Midwest to work through the remainder of their season.
"In eastern Montana, where I base, 80 percent of the work is herbicide – spraying wheat, some alfalfa, some specialty crops," said Pluhar. "The pasture segment has really been picking up the past couple of years, doing brush control, spraying for sagebrush, cactus, Canada thistle, and a multitude of other weeds."
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Pluhar also serves as the immediate past treasurer of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, an industry association representing professional commercial aerial applicators who use aircraft to enhance food, fiber and biofuel production, protect forestry and control health-threatening pests. The NAAA estimates between 20 and 25 percent of all crops sprayed in the U.S., approximately 71 million acres, are treated aerially.
Saving crops at 140 mph
The ongoing, solitary advantage aerial application continues to have across the U.S. is simply speed. An airplane or helicopter can accomplish much more work in a day than any other form of application.
Andrew Moore is the executive director of the NAAA, which represents 1,900 members in 46 states.
"When farmers have a pest infestation, they have to get rid of it quickly," said Moore. "They can't risk losing their crop or having decreased yields. In cases of rain, mud or a point in the growing season where the plants are too tall – farmers can't get sprayers in the fields. Aerial applicators can get in quickly and take care of the problem above the field, not in the field."
Pluhar notes a case in the Golden Triangle of Montana, a region in the north central part of the state famed for ideal wheat growing conditions. Traditionally, wheat rust had never been a concern in this area as winters would kill the fungus. However, the wet year of 2011 provided conditions that allowed it to establish.
"When it came in, was gang busters," said Pluhar. As the fungus moved toward the eastern part of the state, and new strains were found that could overwinter, his work quickly escalated.
"If you are raising wheat and want to save it, you have to spray it," he said. "Time is of the essence in cases like this, and aerial is going to be the application of choice."
Growing more with less
With increased control comes improved production.
"Aerial application is actually better for the environment because the judicious use of crop protection products allows for far greater yields, up to 30 to 50 percent greater depending on what you're growing," said Moore. "We're growing more on the same amount of land."
Also, aerial application does not compact the soil since the aircraft never comes into contact with the infected crop, and there is no risk of infection spreading to non-contaminated areas.
Although anything with the words "crop spraying" has gotten a bad rap from the organic consumer movement, Moore said their members do spraying on organic fields as well – just with different products. Conventional farming uses crop protection products approved by the EPA, and organic farmers must use approved pesticides and products to maintain their crops also.
"The huge myth out there is that organic agriculture is chemical free," said Moore. "They still use pesticides, just pesticides that are deemed not synthetic."
Cutting edge technology
Moore and Pluhar both agree the biggest opportunity in aerial application is the explosion of technology. "We've fallen in line with how agriculture has changed in many respects. For one thing, the equipment is a lot more sophisticated," said Moore. "Twenty years ago we were mostly flying 300 gallon (spray capacity) airplanes; now the average is 500 gallons, and the largest is 800."
Bigger, faster models of aircraft mean quality has replaced quantity.
"There are actually less airplanes flying now than 20 years ago, but they can do more work," said Pluhar.
Turbine engine aircraft, which are faster and more fuel efficient, have replaced piston engines. What's inside these scaled up planes is even more impressive. Precision application technology allows aviators to apply product in varying rates and on specific locations with nozzle flow technology and GPS. Pluhar said he put his first GPS on an airplane in 1998, and today probably 95 percent or more run GPS. Some systems can receive NVDI (normalized difference vegetation index) field maps, which show green areas of vegetation versus non-growth areas, then make precise applications based on the needs of that field. Onboard meteorological systems can provide exact readings of wind speed, barometric temperature, wind direction, temperature, and humidity at a rate of three readings per second.
"This all allows us to be very efficient and accurate with the crop protection product we're using," said Moore. "And it saves a lot of fuel because we're using less material per field."
Like any business sector of the ag industry, aerial applicators face many of the same challenges: government regulation, anti-production agriculture sentiment, and increasing infrastructure.
Threatened rulings from the Environmental Protection Agency, like the Waters of the United States Act and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, keep the staff and board members of the NAAA, including Moore and Pluhar, on Capitol Hill on a regular basis.
"We aren't just a voice for ag application," said Pluhar. "We're a voice for high production agriculture. A lot of these activists who are against us aren't just against aerial application – they just don't like high production ag in general. And we have an empathetic media that is willing to carry their water and their propaganda that isn't backed by scientific data or factual information."
An additional obstacle for spray pilots is quite literally, obstacles. An increase in technological infrastructure has meant more physical structures like communications towers, RTK (used for farm equipment auto-steering) towers, wind turbines, meteorological data towers, and UAVs (or drones) are occupying space where ag aviators need to be.
"Towers, wires, irrigation systems, those kind of obstacles create roughly 2/3 of our accidents," said Moore. "We are working with the FAA to establish policies like making sure UAVs are trackable, lit, and automatically land when a manned aircraft is in the vicinity."
NAAA is also encouraging the FAA to develop a central tower database where all tower locations could be listed and searched before low-level flight activity.
Safety is any aerial applicator's top priority. To be licensed, an ag aviator must pass medical clearance and knowledge and skills tests. The equipment is designed specifically to withstand the demands and risks of the job, and safety and education programs have decreased ag aviation accidents more than 20 percent since 1998.
Yet aerial application is not for the wary. When asked if there were any memorable situations that stood out in his career, Pluhar laughed.
"It's kind of every day," he said. "Basically me and everybody else in the industry spend our time 8-10 feet off the ground doing anywhere from 120-140 mph. But for me what stands out is I've flown in 13 different states, spraying different crops on different terrains. That's been the interesting part. You get to see the whole spectrum – there's a lot more agriculture than just wheat."
Despite the challenges, the passion of aerial applicators like Pluhar remains strong.
"It's very, very rewarding to help farmers and ranchers get the most out of their production – to me that's what it's all about," said Pluhar. "I'm all about high production agriculture. There's a lot of attention on alternative methods of farming, but the bottom line is they're not going to feed the world. When you break it down, we have to keep producing more on less ground. And conventional, high-production is the only way we're going to do it."