Let’s Talk About Safe to Spray

Crop Dusting Has Evolved Into Aerial Application

It is springtime again and you may have spotted low flying aircraft in rural areas. Agricultural aircraft are used to conduct aerial application services, also known as crop dusting services. There are many misconceptions about the aerial application industry, but the Colorado Agricultural Aviation Association (CoAAA) is here to provide the industry facts.

“Crop dusting” doesn’t begin to describe the way the industry has developed since it began in 1921. For one thing, most applications today are in liquid form, so the word “dusting” doesn’t say enough. For another, today’s aerial applicators do much more than their predecessors did. The best term for them might be “Crop Doctors,” because they must administer the proper, targeted treatment, at the correct dosage and time, to keep the plants healthy. Aerial applicators work closely with farmers, ranchers, agronomists, and crop consultants to plan and execute a treatment plan for a threatened crop.

Aerial applicators perform many vital tasks such as seeding crops and/or cover crops; fertilizing crops, rangeland, and/or forests; protecting crops with disease control products; performing public health spraying (an example would be mosquito control); forestry seeding, fertilizing, and protection; aerial firefighting; and weed mitigation. Aerial applicators are capable of working over most types of geographic terrain–production farmland, ranch land, state and federal lands, mountains, and waterways. The agricultural aircraft often volunteer to help in surprising ways. Last fall two aircraft came from Fort Morgan to assist firefighters in suppressing a grassfire by Kersey, Colorado, with aerial water drops. Volunteer aerial firefighting is used in cases of emergency and it is just one example of how aerial applicators volunteer to support their local communities.

Aerial application is often the safest, fastest, most efficient and most economical way to treat a crop when pests or disease threaten it. Applying products by air supports low till or no till farming practices, and it allows access to a crop when the field is too wet for land-based equipment to safely enter. The rainy spring in 2015 made most field access nearly impossible, so aircraft were called in to prevent massive wheat crop loss to a fungus called Striped Rust.

Remember, anything added to a crop has a cost (economic input), so farmers will only pay for needed services to seed, feed, or protect their crop if the cost of crop damage exceeds the cost of making the application. This concept of using economic threshold allows farmers to use only what is necessary for the crop in a specific growing season. What was necessary to protect a crop in 2015 may not be used in 2016 depending on weather, pests, diseases, etc.

Agricultural aircraft are a tool used by well trained professional pilots certificated by the FAA to make low altitude flights in support of agriculture, forestry, or public health. The average aerial applicator pilot has 21.3 years of experience and the average aerial application business owner/pilot has 27.4 years of experience in the industry. Ag pilots have their commercial pilots’ licenses and must also be registered as commercial pesticide applicators in the states where they make applications. New pilots take an average of three to five years to receive pilot certifications and receive mentoring by an aerial applicator before the new pilot is given the responsibility to perform active aerial application jobs. The new pilot typically works on the ground crew learning the business for one to five years before earning the opportunity to get into an agricultural aircraft. New pilots learn the business from the ground up.

Today’s aerial applicators fly both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft especially designed for this purpose. These aircraft range in price from $100,000 to $1.5 million. They are ruggedly built to handle 30 to 100 takeoffs and landings every day from rough landing strips and they offer protection and good visibility for the pilot. Today’s ag aircraft use sophisticated precision application equipment such as GPS (global positioning systems), GIS (geographical information systems), real-time meteorological measurement systems, flow control valves for variable-rate applications, single-boom shutoff valves, and smokers to identify wind speed and direction. Spray equipment such as nozzles are heavily researched, factory tested, and professionally calibrated to provide optimal coverage patterns for each individual aircraft.

Why do we need crop protection products to grow our food and other crops? The world population continues to grow at a fast pace. Today there are 7.4 billion people, but it is estimated that by 2025 there will be 8.1 billion, with the population in 2050 projected to reach 9.6 billion people. World food needs will double, but land area suitable for farming is not increasing. To produce future food, fiber and bio-fuels and leave room for wildlife, we must increase production on the land we are now using. High-yield agriculture, which includes the use of crop protection products, benefits the environment by producing maximum crop yields from a small amount of land.

Crop protection products, both conventional and organic, such as fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides, may be used in aerial applications. All crop protection products must meet tough safety standards. Only one in 20,000 pesticides actually survives the eight- to 11-year process of development, testing and registration by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to Phillips McDougall, it costs $256 million to bring a new crop protection product to market. The aircraft apply a diluted solution of the crop protection product to ensure complete and even coverage over the entire application area.

Nearly 900 scientists and program officials from the EPA make sure that products are properly registered to comply with federal law. Once on the market, they are monitored by the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and state pesticide enforcement agencies. This stringent regulatory system ensures the safety of our food, the safety of the products to the environment, and the safety of the workers that mix, load, and apply the products.

Contrary to what consumers may think, organic farmers employ the services of aerial applicators on organic crops, using approved organic pesticides to prevent any infestations from starting. Like conventional farming, timing is crucial and when spraying needs to be done for organic fields, it needs to be done quickly. A survey by the National Agricultural Aviation Association found that nearly one in four (23%) aerial application companies sprayed an organic field in 2015. According to the National Organic Program (NOP), which is overseen by the USDA, organic crop pests, weed and diseases must be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical and biological controls. According to the NOP when these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical or synthetic substance approved for use on the “National List” may be used. Substances that may be used include horticulture oils, sulfur, copper, pyrethrum, rotenone, Bt and Spinosad.

The next time you see a working agricultural aircraft, feel free to appreciate the beauty of a professional job well done. Our pilots live, raise their families, and eat the local food produced in the same communities where they work, because they know it is safe to spray.

For more information about aerial application operations, call the Colorado Agricultural Aviation Association at (970) 217-5293, or email us at coagav@gmail.com.

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