What air space means to agriculture

Anita Lee
Sturgis, S.D.

This letter was submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration in response to the proposed expansion of the Powder River Military Operations Area.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am Anita Lee, I have lived on this farm with my husband Kenny for 43 years. I would like to explain what air space means to us.

We raise wheat, corn, sunflowers and millet. Starting the first of September, Kenny, and our son Rick, will spray all of the ground that is to be planted to winter wheat. They usually use ground sprayers with Roundup (a chemical). Ground sprayers are self-propelled, or pulled by tractors and roll on the ground. Ground rigs are safer than spraying with airplanes but they still have to watch weather conditions very carefully. The wind must be from the right direction to protect neighboring fields, trees and pastures, and not be over 20 miles per hour. The temperatue must be between 50 and 85 degrees. In South Dakota, this is a challenge. The spraying is almost all done between 5 am and noon. By noon, the wind is usually too strong and sometimes the temperature is too high. Also, they must have several hours before a rain, so the chemical can be absorbed before it washes off. If the ground is muddy, they must hire a “crop duster,” which means a spray plane.

In this area, winter wheat should be planted between Sept. 10 and the end of October. The ground must be sprayed before the wheat is planted to kill the weeds. If it is not sprayed, the weeds will take all the moisture and the wheat will not come up. They can’t spray the weeds after planting because Roundup will kill the little wheat plants. They plant about 2,500 acres of winter wheat and it is always a grueling task to get it all done on time. Any day that they can’t spray adds to the stress. Wheat must be planted by the end of October to qualify for crop insurance. Crop insurance is necessary for our financial security and peace of mind. Also, most lenders will not loan money to operate on, if the farmer doesn’t have insurance. (They want to be sure of getting their money back.) If wheat is planted earlier, there is more damage from grasshoppers and crop diseases. Since winter wheat is the biggest and best crop for this area, we need our air space from Sept. 1 until Oct. 31.

Obviously a jet will not hit a ground rig and kill the pilot, but wing vortices can move the chemical to the neighboring fields or trees. Since any spraying operation must avoid wind over 20 mph, a passing plane would disperse the chemical onto the wrong field and kill alfalfa, grass, etc. This would be like having a low flying jet pass over a car being painted. Suddenly, your beautiful red paint is all over your neighbors’ cars, houses, windows, etc. Chemicals can’t be ‘removed’ like paint.

International regulations require commercial airlines to be separated by 6 nautical miles to protect them from wing vortice interference. This is conservative since research has shown that wing vortices move about 90 knots per hour and remain about 10 miles behind the plane. Small aircraft are supposed to stay at least 1000 feet below other aircraft. Vortices stay longer in calm winds and dissipate faster in higher winds. Ag sprayers only work in calm to light wind conditions. Since the Air Force claims to be flying at 500 feet AGL, (and current residents of the Powder River MOA say it is more like 100 feet), clearly the wind vortices will be a problem for agricultural chemical application.

April brings us to the time when the winter wheat must be sprayed to kill the spring weeds. This is the most difficult spraying operation, and when many farmers who usually use ground rigs have to call crop dusters. This is the time when spring rains often make the fields too muddy to drive through. There is about a two-week window when this has to be done. If it is sprayed too early, weeds will sprout up after spraying and choke out the wheat. If it is sprayed too late, the wheat will be damaged. This time span is sometime in April through May. It varies with the maturity of each field. This varies because of planting time, weather, location, etc. If it is not done, the crop will be poor, or lost completely. We need our air space in April and May.

April through June also brings the chemical application for the spring crops (spring wheat, corn, millet, sunflowers, safflower, oats, etc.) This is just like the fall spraying for winter wheat.

Some years, because of extra rainfall, the winter wheat must be sprayed again before harvest. This is usually done with a plane, so that the mature heads are not knocked off the wheat. This is done in July and August. Sunflowers are also sprayed in the late summer to kill insects. Sunflowers must be sprayed by air because they are too tall for a ground sprayer.

Alfalfa can be sprayed from April through September to kill insects. This brings us around to September again when we start spraying the winter wheat ground. Farmers spend as much time on their spray rigs as ranchers spend on their horses.

The north west corner of South Dakota raises 5 to 7 million bushels of winter wheat a year. This is a million loaves of bread a day. North Dakota raises more wheat than South Dakota. This doesn’t count all the other crops. Cattle is the number one commodity to come from this corner of the state. The average farmer puts about $200,000 a year into the local economy and pays about $20,000 in state and local taxes. There are about 3,500 farms in this corner of South Dakota. My numbers only apply to the northwest corner of South Dakota, covered by this training area. I do not have the Agricultural Statistics books from the other three states, so I left them out.

This is a little idea of the number of people in the world who will go hungry if you take our air space. I hope you plan to reimburse us for our lost income and reimburse the state, counties and cities for the lost tax revenue and sales.

I think everyone understands the danger to humans and animals when livestock are confined and spooked by low-flying aircraft. Spring calving and lambing runs from January through June. Fall calving and lambing runs from June through December. The Air Force has promised not to fly over us during calving and lambing. We can assume that was an empty promise, or they really don’t understand agriculture. Do they really think everyone calves or lambs at the same time, and works with livestock only a few days a year?

We think this is more important than making 12 to 24 B-1s travel to Nevada to train.

Another concern is the way damage claims are handled. I have spent some time studying how damage claims are handled in other MOAs and I have found they are usually not handled. The EIS stated several times that claims would be handled out of the Ellsworth Public Affairs Office, and gives a phone number. I dialed that number to see what happened. I got an answering machine. I gave my home and cell phone number and requested a call back. That was four years ago and I have still not received my call. That is about the way other MOAs handle claims, according to the reports I have read. At the EIS meetings, the Air Force speakers talk about how few damage claims they receive. I can certainly believe that. They don’t pay claims, so people just give up.

Crop damage, like I described above, is not covered by any type of private insurance. This is another reason that we cannot farm in a MOA. A fair way to handle claims is to turn them over to local authorities. Whether it be the sheriff, or county commission, they should be handled by an elected county official. If, as the Air Force claims, there will be no damage, this should not be a problem. If there is a problem, the fifth amendment says “nor shall private property be taken without just compensation.”

This brings me to my final point. The Constitution gives the government the right to condemn and take private property, by eminent domain, for use by the military. However, the property owner must be paid a fair price for that property. We have heard nothing about compensation for the taking of our ability to farm our land.

Thank you!