Ag Careers, Farm Life, RHORI

Seeing Dusty Crophopper

“Look Mommy! Look Daddy! That’s ‘Dusty Crophopper!'” We heard excited squeals from the girl crew in the backseat as they spotted one of their favorite movie stars in the sky. Like the Planes character, these flyers are fascinating to watch. Just look at the pictures I took. How can you not be impressed? Swooping down over the road, navigating farmsteads and power lines, and literally dusting the top of the field. If you drove through rural Illinois or an agricultural area over the last few weeks you may have seen a “crop duster” in action.

The activity of these aerial applicators, referencing their more professional name, spurs some questions from people not involved in agriculture, and even some of us in agriculture. I noticed some social media chatter and sharing of articles containing information that was not factual about the safety of these planes and the chemicals they spray. I’ll be honest, even as part of a farming family and someone with an educational background in agriculture, I don’t know a lot about the specifics of aerial application. But I do know some statements being made are not correct, so I am using credible sources to address some of the questions you may have.

The National Agriculture Aviation Association (NAAA) reports there are approximately 1,350 aerial application businesses in the United States and a whopping 94% of the owners of those businesses are also pilots.  The agricultural pilots must have their commercial pilots license and be registered as a commercial pesticide application in all states in which they perform applications. Pilots must also meet Federal Aviation Regulation requirements for low-level aviation. The agriculture aircraft are rugged and are specially built to handle 30 to 100 takeoffs and landings daily, even on rough landing strips. Pretty amazing!

Throughout July, the low flying agriculture planes you are seeing are most likely hired by a farmer who was faced with a serious and detrimental crop situation during the growing season. By that point in Illinois the corn is too tall to drive over and the soybeans have canopied (filled out to where individual rows are no longer open) and driving through the field without further damage to crops is no longer an option. At that point, the only way to control an insect, weed or disease threat is to come at it from above. But other times of the year you may notice planes performing other important jobs. For example, aerial applicators may also be used to plant seed into flooded fields or cover crops into a mature crop field before harvest. Using an aerial application also means one less trip through the field and no corresponding soil compaction. And don’t be quick to think that transitioning to organic farming would eliminate the use of aerial applicators. The NAAA notes organic farmers also hire aerial application. Organic does not mean no chemicals are used, as there is a list of approved products in organic farming.

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