Aerial agrobatics

Crop dusters take to the skies over Allen County. The planes will spread cover crops and chemicals to improve fields and kill insects.

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September 4, 2020 - 3:34 PM

A crop-dusting plane circles wide after dumping its payload. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

Crop dusters have been taking to the skies in Allen County and surrounding areas over the past couple of weeks.

In order to get a closer look at the process, this Register reporter visited the Allen County airport on Thursday, where multiple planes were being filled with chemicals and “cover crop” before making their rounds.

Matt Orth is a pilot who has been flying for 15 years, and had just landed after a run when he spoke to the Register.

He was specifically depositing a “cover crop” on select fields, which he explained is a substance composed of cereal rye, radishes and turnips.

Crop dusting plane Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Todd Strickler reads a map for crop dusters showing the locations of organic fields, beehives and more. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Crop dusting plane. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Matt Orth watches from the cockpit as cover crop is poured into the holding tank on his aircraft. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Matt Orth watches from the cockpit as cover crop is poured into the holding tank on his aircraft. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Crop dusting plane Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Roy Louk gets the thumb’s up from a pilot after filling the aircraft’s tank with water and chemicals. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Roy Louk gets the thumb’s up from a pilot after filling the aircraft’s tank with water and chemicals. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Crop dusting plane. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
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Cover crops are a part of no-till programs, Orth said, and “we’re putting it in the standing crop right before harvest.”

“Hopefully it gets a rain and comes up before they even harvest the crop,” he said. 

“It covers the ground during the wintertime, and helps use up the excess nitrogen in the soil so that the nitrogen doesn’t leach into the water,” especially after periods of heavy rain.

“Nitrogen is the fertilizer for corn,” Orth noted. “They’ll put fertilizer down, and whatever that corn crop doesn’t use, this crop will use the rest of it.”

He also said that cover crops can “keep the soil active and working all year,” as well as “help keep the weeds down.”

Cover crops likewise help provide grazing for cattle and protect against soil erosion, which are two of the many reasons why the government provides incentives for the practice.

REGARDING the task of flying the aircraft, Orth said that “we just set a line, usually on the edge of the field. And it’s 65- or 70-foot swaths.”

“We just fly back and forth every 65 or 70 feet.”

“For cover crop, I’ll just back-to-back it,” Orth said, drawing in the dust on top of a wheel well. 

“When we’re doing liquid, it’s more like a race track. … You come down one edge, you come down the other edge until you get to the middle.”

What’s the greatest challenge when crop dusting?

“Everything. Everything,” Orth said.

“The environmental factors, the surroundings, watching all around you.”

And there are several things to watch out for, Orth said, where computer-generated maps can only help so much.

“Peoples’ houses, honey bees … the mapping program shows any of the organics, beehives and stuff that are registered with the state.”

Beyond having to dodge spraying certain things on the ground, what’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you while you were crop-dusting?

“Engine failure,” Orth said. “I landed in an alfalfa field.”

ENGINES were roaring nearby when Roy Louk explained some of the details of spraying for insects, as he added the appropriate chemicals to water and then pumped them into the small aircraft nearby.

After working for AG Choice in Moran over the past three years, “I can’t even name all the worms we’re after!” he exclaimed.

He then produced a list of undesirables that included: grasshoppers, aphids, armyworms, chinch bugs, corn rootworms, cutworms, European corn borers, flea and leaf beatles, webworms, billbugs, stalk borers, and the dreaded corn earworm.

Farmers loath the corn earworms especially, since “they’ll go in there and eat the beans right out of the pod.”

This is why “you can have almost a total loss if you don’t spray,” chimed in Todd Strickler from the LeRoy COOP.

THE agriculture and crop-dusting specialists interviewed were also sensitive to how the practice is perceived, especially by environmental groups.

There’s frustration in the voices of many of those who spoke, as it’s clear the farmers involved are treading a fine line between being successful agriculturally while being cognizant of peoples’ concerns.

The farmers and pilots “do care about what they’re doing,” explained Ryan Dawnson, also of LeRoy COOP.

“Unfortunately, they get blamed for a lot of issues,” he added, despite keeping an eye out for organic fields, beehives and paying careful attention to wind patterns.

Whether such divergences in perception can be overcome is impossible to say, but in the meantime, the dusters will keep taking to the skies.

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