Rarely do images of flight come to mind when thinking of agriculture. For some agriculturalists though, their daily work is amid the blue skies.
Agricultural aviation is an enterprise not for the faint of heart. Much like farmers, this select group of pilots deals with high-cost and high-tech matters every day and puts in long hours during the heat of the season.
Ohio has a rich history of aerial application. The first known use of heavier-than-air machinery for the dispersal of products occurred at a farm near Troy where lead arsenate was spread to kill catalpa sphinx caterpillars in 1921. Since then, the industry has thrived in Ohio, now home to several full-time operators. There have been many changes through the years.
As cover crops have increased in popularity, they have become a more important part of the aerial application business for Mark Gaerte of Gaerte Ag Service in northwest Ohio who serves as president of the Ohio Agricultural Aviation Association.
“The outlook is positive,” Gaerte said. “Grain prices might be down here in the nation, but I think the cover crop sector is picking up for most aerial applicators in the state and across the Midwest. Things look up for us like that. We are busiest from day to day July through September. It goes from corn fungicide spraying that first week of July until almost the end of August and goes right into dry cover crop seeding from then on out. It depends on the weather obviously. We end up seeding it up until October. I’ve gone as late as October, some in November. It’s always different.”
Luther Gibbs and his son Brian Gibbs are a father-son team running Gibbs AeroSpray close to Lake Erie.
“We live up near Fremont, Ohio. Up along the Lake we spray row crops, some vegetable stuff — cabbage, pickles, a few tomatoes,” Luther said. “Dad started the spraying business in 1952 when the Heinz company opened, H.J. Heinz, and then we just progressed on from there.”
Brian Gibbs is the third generation to fly above Ohio’s fields in the family business.
“There’s a lot of pride involved. You want to do the best job you can do for the farmers around. A lot of our customers have been around since my grandpa was spraying so I enjoy just getting to know everybody and doing the best job we can do for them,” Brian said. “We’ve had a pretty dry spring overall so far. As far as the wheat acres, a lot of guys were able to get in and topdress it with their own equipment. Work’s been picking up a little bit with alfalfa weevil spraying for bugs. We usually get into spraying some wheat fungicide. But all in all, guys are probably going to be rounding out planting and it looks like it’s been a pretty good spring for everybody so far.”
There are several important issues at the center of the ag aviation world currently.
“New regulations on the Waters of the U.S. — we have to worry about that a little more. I noticed the other day we passed some creeks that actually had signs posted that said Waters of the U.S. and I have never seen that before,” Luther said. “But I think the farmer is going to have to start paying attention to that.”
Being involved in such a small career field, crop dusters often find themselves commonly sharing stories and recommendations with their fellow pilots. It’s clear there’s very little bad blood to be had within the tightknit Ohio group.
Ohio’s aerial applicators — more often known as crop dusters — recently gathered at the Morrow County Airport, base of operations for Fisher Ag Service, to take part in Operation SAFE. The event offers networking opportunities, but more importantly helps to ensure the use of application technology is as efficient and accurate as possible. SAFE in this case stands for Self-regulating Application and Flight Efficiency and is put on by the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA).
According to the NAAA, aerial application accounts for about 20% of all applied crop protection products on commercial farms and nearly 100% of forest protection applications. The numbers also show there are around 1,350 aerial applicator businesses in the U.S. with the average pilot having 21.3 years of experience within the industry. The price of ag aircraft can range anywhere from $100,000 to $1.5 million.
With those dollar amounts in mind, it’s clear why crop dusters want to get the very most out of their equipment and provide the best possible service to the producer on the ground through efforts like SAFE.
“We’ve been in business for about 24 years. Single pilot, single-plane operation — I’m everything from
chief pilot to the gas boy and everything in between,” said Roger Trump, who runs an aerial applicator business in western Ohio near Greenville. “You’re able to give your customer a better quality job by running the aircraft through a test pattern like this. Because with the aerodynamics, sometimes even though you stand behind the airplane and look at the placement of the nozzles on the booms and everything, you say ‘well that looks good.’ But with the aerodynamics and the air churning around the aircraft, sometimes it’s not as good as it looks and this actually tests the pattern on the ground so you can shuffle the nozzles to where the need to be to get as even an application as possible.
“One of the issues that we have to be very conscious of and concerned about is drift of chemical off target — making sure it stays in the field where we put it — and just being a good steward of the environment for the community and the country.”
The SAFE event is focused on implementing the best technology to better serve farm customers. Dennis Gardisser is president of WRK — one of the few companies in the world that deals with aerial application technology. The SAFE program in Morrow County marked the 31st event of its kind this spring alone for the Arkansas-based business.
“We’re here today working with the agricultural aviation industry to do two major things. One is to help them with spray applications and one is to help them with their dry material distributions. In the spray applications we collect a sample dynamically exactly as they would in the field, but we’re able to analyze that because we put a tracer in the water and we have a collection medium that’s 150 feet wide,” Gardisser said. “Once we’ve done that we know what the correct swath width is and we know how uniform they’re applying the material so that we get everything evenly in the field. We also put out collectors so we know what their droplet spectrum is, so when we go to the fields to work with the producers and they buy the chemical, then that chemical is placed in the field at the correct rate, at the correct droplet size. They get high efficacy for good plant or pest control and they have good safety when they don’t have small droplets.
“It’s a way for them to test those materials at the start of the season and be ready. In addition, there’s a lot of dry materials put out — fertilizers and seed — and so we have a dual set of equipment where we’re able to analyze the distribution of those. We can determine the rate as well as the swath width and uniformity of those as well. All of these measures are voluntary. The pilots are paying my firm to be here to do this, and they’re hoping to be very competitive and provide the clients they work for the best service possible.”
The event helps to improve the industry in Ohio and ultimately the performance on the ground for farmers.
“We have a good bunch of people here in Ohio flying spray planes. I’m not saying other areas of the country don’t, but one of the things in Ohio is that the aerial applicators kind of work with each other,” Trump said. “In other parts of the country, it becomes more of ‘well whatever I can do to get one over on my competitor who’s one or two counties away.’ But we don’t see too much of that attitude here in Ohio. It’s more of a cooperation attitude and I appreciate that — I think that’s great that we have that type of environment among our aerial applicators in Ohio.”
Whether it’s the state-of-the-art aircraft, the in-depth knowledge needed for chemical and seed work, or any area in between, agricultural aviation has devoted people working hard behind the scenes to get the job done.
Ohio’s aerial applicators, in partnership with farmers, are putting their skills and passions to work to feed this world. The only difference is they’re working at speeds of 140 miles per hour and up just feet off the ground. Butch Fisher, owner of Fisher Ag Service, the host of the SAFE event, has been doing just that for several decades now.
“This event gives us a chance to pattern test airplanes, check for swath, droplet size, make sure we’re on label and everything, do a little more accurate of a job,” Fisher said. “We’re basically a five airplane operation. I’ve been in business basically 40 years and started out with a helicopter and an airplane. Then we advanced to strictly airplanes. And we do liquid work, seeding, dry fertilizer — mainly crop care. We are basically keeping the plant at the best growing conditions for the season. Most of our work is after the plants are emerged and growing good so our busy season is basically June, July, and August. So we’re pretty active once the crops get up — we do a little bit of early spring work for herbicides and a little urea. We finally finish out in the summer during a good fungicide run on corn and beans with seeding cover crop. Really, we’re here to take care of people — been here for 40 years.”