WALLS, Miss. (AP) - Motorists often see the agile, brightly colored planes flying over DeSoto County fields, especially in the county’s rich-soil west Delta region.
But don’t call them “crop dusters.” For one thing, they’re likely spraying, and they’ve elevated their role to that of an airborne crop doc who can respond quickly to an ailing field or help keep healthy growth in the pink, or rather, green.
Across Mississippi, according to state statistics, there are some 230 licensed agricultural aviation pilots and more than 100 “aerial applicator” businesses and 190 registered aircraft. They’re trained on crop care and restricted-use chemicals, and they take on vital tasks ranging from soil preparation and planting to agricultural seeding, protection and spraying.
In North Mississippi, providers include Delta Dusters of Walls; Carson Flying Service and Lesco Aviation, both of Tunica in Tunica County; Cole Flying Service of Batesville in Panola County; and Lyndale Farms of Senatobia in Tate County.
Rex Lester of Southaven, owner-operator of Lesco, says airborne applications are “a pretty good piece” of the farming and aviation puzzle regionally and nationally.
“You might call us unsung heroes,” Lester said. “Many of the reasons that we have such abundance from our agricultural producers, such a good food supply, are because of what we do.”
Aerial applicators can cover dozens of acres in minutes and respond quickly to field emergencies.
Lester pointed to a dramatic incident in 2007 in the Kansas-Nebraska region in which he and some 200 other ag aviators “answered the call” to halt a devastating wheat blight with a fungicide that had just been made available.
Locally, ag aviators take science and best-practices aloft, Lester says.
“We’re able to do site-specific applications, using aerial imagery,” he said. “In effect, we write a prescription for the particular field. Like a doctor, we determine what’s needed and prescribe no more than what’s necessary, no fistful of pills where just one or two will do.”
Generally, aerial applicators are able to spray 100 acres in under 30 minutes, depending on ferry distance to the field and size of fields. A plane, depending on size, can carry 2,500 to 5,000 pounds of dry fertilizer, and there are 400- to 800-gallon hoppers on planes currently in production.
On the modern, large-scale farm, production can’t proceed without aerial applicators. And farming isn’t done exclusively with aerial: It takes both aerial and ground sprayers. But when the ground is too wet for ground equipment, it’s an advantage to have aerial applicators to continue spraying or fertilizing
And while some needs are immediate and time-sensitive, others are more routine such as treating a regularly flooded field for rice that doesn’t allow ground equipment until harvest.
So how did “crop duster” fly into the vocabulary? The term took off decades ago when the pilots actually dropped powdered chemicals, “dusting” the fields.
Lester, 43, developed a love of flying early in life: “I was a flyer since 14 and a sprayer since 19,” and he’s is a member of the Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Association.
“It’s amazing how many planes are in use in the North Mississippi and Delta region,” said association president Joey Daniels of Hollandale, in Washington County in the state’s west-central Delta.
Because of coverage capability, aerial applicators “save our farmers thousands of dollars,” said Daniels. “The farmers don’t have to buy as much equipment when they use us.”
The association has done much to dispel the old “crop duster” public image by cooperating with state agencies such as the Division of Plant Industry and Mississippi State University, which provides extension services, to a point, members say, where the “aerial applicator” is now a respected member of the community.
The association has helped set up testing procedures of aircraft and spray-dispensing equipment, and it was instrumental in passage of the state Agricultural Aviation Board Act of 1966. This panel, made up of four active Mississippi operators plus the head entomologist for the Division of Plant Industry, govern agricultural aviation in Mississippi, the only state to have such a system.
For more than a half-century, the group has promoted safety and for about 12 years has sponsored seminars throughout the state.
“We’re proud of our record over the years,” said Daniels. “Last year, we didn’t have a single fatality.”
All aviation poses risks, and the Mississippi agricultural applicator community mourned the loss of pilot Ronny Leist, of Biloxi and a Clarksdale native, in a July 1 crash in Coahoma County.
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, https://www.commercialappeal.com
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