Veteran crop sprayer: Aerial industry is an important tool
PAGE, N.D. — It’s early afternoon on a picture-postcard day in late May, a rarity in a wet, drizzly spring. Tim “Toby” McPherson is anxious to climb into his spray plane and take advantage of the perfect conditions.
But McPherson, proprietor of Tall Towers Aviation, in Page, N.D., isn’t one to pass up an opportunity to promote aerial agriculture application. Patiently and in detail, he answers questions about his industry.
“The United States enjoys a safe, affordable food supply,” he says. “Crop protection products play a huge role in that. And our industry is part of it, too. We’re another tool that farmers can use.”
Another Upper Midwest growing season is under way, and aerial ag applicators, also known as crop sprayers, are doing their part to help fledgling crops survive and thrive. That role is likely to be even bigger than usual this year; crop sprayers usually are busiest when wet fields hamper ground application of chemicals.
McPherson, 55, is a lifer in his industry. He’s seen many changes through the years and expects to see even more before he’s through.
When he began, he flew a 150-horsepower plane that carried 100 gallons. Today, he flies a 750-horsepower plane that carries up to 500 gallons. Modern planes also offer air conditioning, high-tech tools such as GPS and turbine engines that give a smoother ride.
“Before, at the end of the day, you were tired (from flying). Now, it’s just so much easier,” he says.
Technology also allows crop sprayers to be more efficient and precise, he says.
There’s a downside to modern ag aviation, however. Cell towers, wind farms and other obstacles are increasingly common. McPherson and other crop sprayers are concerned about someday sharing the sky with unmanned aerial vehicles, which, by all accounts, could play a big role in ag’s future.
“You can’t have a bad day in our profession,” McPherson says, stressing the constant need for safety.
McPherson grew up in nearby Arthur, N.D., the son of a truck driver. As a boy, he and his older brother, now a crop sprayer in Colorado, watched a neighbor spray crops.
“That’s what got me interested in this. I’ve wanted to do this since the second grade,” McPherson says.
He acquired his nickname as a boy. “Toby” is emblazoned near the cockpit of his crop spraying plane.
After high school, he worked for an aviation company for four years in Wahpeton, N.D., where he learned to fly and first sprayed crops.
In conversation, McPherson sometimes refers to himself as a “crop sprayer” or a “crop duster,” the latter a throwback term used in the industry’s early days. Today, “aerial applicator” generally is the preferred term.
In 1980, McPherson founded Tall Towers Aviation. “This is our 35th season,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like it, but it is.”
The company’s name comes from his old high school athletic conference, which took its name from two large TV towers in the area. Today, the company works with customers in a 20-mile radius of Page, much the same area as schools in the old athletic conference once served.
McPherson decided on Page, in part, because the crop sprayer who had served the area died in 1976. His wife’s strong ties to the Page area also contributed to the decision.
Page, a farm town of about 230, is in western Cass County. Fargo, North
Dakota’s biggest city, is in extreme eastern Cass County. Page, on the fringes of glacial Lake Agassiz, is about 300 feet higher than Fargo — a good indication of how big and deep the ancient lake was.
Historically, aerial ag applicators have tended to be small, one-man operations. Ag aviation companies are getting bigger, reflecting the overall trend of bigger agricultural operations, and Tall Towers Aviation is bigger than most.
It has seven full-time employees and three part-timers. The workforce includes McPherson’s sons, Tucker, 25, and Tyler, 22, and his younger brother, Scott, who’s been with Tall Towers Aviation since the beginning.
The McPhersons farm raising corn and soybeans, too.
Besides aerial crop application, Tall Towers Aviation provides ground application for crops, sells seed and chemical and offers airplane maintenance.
Big ground-crop applicators became more common in the area in the late 1990s, reducing demand for the services of Tall Towers Aviation and other aerial crop spraying businesses. That led the Page business to begin offering ground application, too.
“It was another way of serving our customers,” McPherson says.
Demand for aerial crop application has risen since the late 1990s, however. Problems with soil compaction, which ground application can alleviate, has contributed to that. So has the need to apply moisture-activated chemicals at the right time; aerial application can help busy farmers apply their chemicals in a timely fashion.
Invariably, aerial ag applicators are busiest in wet growing seasons. North Dakota aerial crop applicators sprayed a record 5 million acres in 2011, when the spring was exceptionally wet.
McPherson, like other aerial ag applicators, charges farmers for the cost of the chemicals used and a per-acre fee to apply them.
The aerial ag application industry, like agriculture in general, could use more young blood.
“The average age (of pilots who spray crops) is 54. We’re trying to get younger guys in it,” McPherson says.
Ag aviation officials say young, would-be crop sprayers typically work for an established business, which eventually gives them a chance to fly themselves.
“Being a good crop duster is more than knowing the airplane. Flying the airplane is taken for granted,” McPherson says.
“You’ve got to know what you’re spraying. The wind and temperature, too,” he says. “You’ve got to be the agronomist. You’ve got to be the weatherman. You’ve got to be the farmer. I love the flying. I love it all.”
He’s optimistic about his industry’s future.
“Demand for our services is growing. The technology keeps getting better,” he says. “We’re going to be around a long, long while.”
States track agricultural aviation in different ways, and comparable statistics aren’t available for North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.
But officials in the four states provide these numbers:
North Dakota has 110 aerial spray companies and 225 ag application aircraft.
Minnesota has about 100 companies and 250 pilots.
South Dakota has 278 aerial ag applicators.
Montana has 67 aerial pesticide applicators.
Nationally, there are about 1,350 aerial ag application businesses, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association. The organization also says the following.
Aerial ag applicators once were known as “crop dusters” because they worked mainly with dry chemicals. Today, they use primarily liquid products.
Early on, aerial ag applicators usually flew small, surplus war planes. Today, they fly much bigger, more sophisticated machines, some of which cost more than $1 million each.
Fixed-wing aircraft account for 87 percent of aircraft used by ag applicators. Helicopters and other rotorcraft account for the rest. A rotorcraft is a flying machine that uses lift generated by rotor blades that revolve around a mast; helicopters are the most common type of rotorcraft.
About 208 million acres of U.S. cropland are treated with crop protection products. Aerial application accounts for about a fifth to a quarter of that.
Aerial applications are used on nearly all crops. Corn, wheat, barley, soybeans, pasture and rangeland are most common.
Aerial application allows large amounts of farmland to be treated quickly. The practice can be most attractive to farmers in wet growing seasons with short application windows.
Aerial applicators, on average, have 21.3 years of industry experience. They must have their commercial pilot license. They also must be registered as commercial pesticide applicators and meet federal regulations dealing with low-level aviation operations.
Good economy benefits aerial ag applicators
Thanks to a rare combination of strong crop prices and generally good yields, the past few years have been kind to most Upper Midwest farmers. Aerial ag applicators have fared well, too.
“As the ag economy goes, we go, too. So we’re on the upswing,” ” says Theresa Stieren, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Aircraft Association.
Weather conditions — a wet growing season makes aerial application more attractive to farmers — affect demand for crop sprayers, too. But as Cynthia Schreiber-Beck, executive director of the North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association, puts it, “Growers are more likely to use our services when times are good (economically).”
Typically, aerial ag applicators are paid a per-acre fee and for the cost of the chemical they use.
Aerial ag operators and farmers have other things in common, officials say.
Both have gotten bigger.
“When the economy was down, most of them (Minnesota ag aerial applicators) were one-man operations. Now, as the ag economy has grown, most of them have grown and taken on additional help,” Stieren says.
Aerial ag application businesses, like farms, have become fewer, too.
For instance, North Dakota had 167 spray companies flying 277 aircraft in 2002. Today, the state has 110 aerial spray companies flying 225 aircraft.
And like farming operations, aerial ag applicators increasingly utilize technology. GPS, geographical information systems, meteorological systems and precision spray equipment are widely used today by crop sprayers, officials say.
But aerial ag applicators face challenges, too.
Crop sprayers have a longstanding concern with meteorological testing towers. “Met towers,” as they’re often called, gather wind data during testing and siting of wind farms. These towers typically are 197 feet, just under Federal Aviation Administration lighting and marking requirements.
Some states, including North Dakota, have passed or are considering legislation that addresses at least part of ag aviators’ concerns. Federal officials have issued an advisory, but not a rule, on the issue.
The advisory helps, but doesn’t fully address the industry’s concern, says Brian Rau, a Medina, N.D., aerial ag applicator. He’s a past president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association and currently chairman of its government relations committee.
He thinks it’s unlikely that a federal rule will be approved.
Sprawling wind farms, with multiple wind towers, are a big concern for aerial ag applicators, officials say.
Pilots could deal relatively easily with just one tower, but the large number of towers, spread over more acres, provides a major challenge, Schreiber-Beck says.
Aerial ag applicator officials say they’re often asked how someone can become part of their industry.
Historically, aspiring aerial ag applicators have gone to work for an existing operator and, after proving themselves, get a crack at flying a spray plane.
That’s still how it works today, officials say.
“You put in your time,” Stieren says. “You get your private pilot’s license and work for somebody locally, who at some point gives you an opportunity. You work your way up through the ranks.”
UAVs important issue for aerial ag applicators
Unmanned aerial vehicles could have a big role in agriculture’s future. That both intrigues and concerns aerial ag applicators.
The concern is that unmanned aerial vehicles will share low-level air space with aerial ag applicators, giving the latter “one more thing to worry about when they’re in the air,” says Cynthia Schreiber-Beck, executive director of the North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association.
But UAVs also hold promise for aerial ag applicators, who wonder if unmanned aerial vehicles will give them further opportunities to serve farmers.
UAVs, sometimes known as drones, have many potential uses in agriculture, including monitoring crops. They have possible uses in other industries, too, and could create 100,000 new jobs and $82 billion in economic activity from 2015 to 2025, according to the UAV industry’s leading trade group.
With that in mind, Congress in 2012 ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with guidelines on how UAVs can be incorporated safely into the nation’s skies by 2015. Late last year, the FAA selected Grand Forks, N.D., as one of six sites nationally where UAVs will be tested to meet that goal.
Reports are circulating that the FAA might issue guidelines for small UAVs (ones weighing 55 pounds or less) by November this year.
In the meantime, the FAA says using UAVs for commercial purposes remains illegal. That longstanding position came into question in March, when a federal judge ruled that FAA’s drone rules are just guidelines and not legally enforceable. The FAA is appealing and FAA’s position apparently remains valid until and unless the judge’s ruling is upheld.
David Rau is a Medina, N.D., aerial ag applicator. He’s a past president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association and currently is chairman of its government relations committee.
Rau says the FAA has consistently told his organization that the commercial use of UAVs is illegal. He also says it’s his understanding that farm liability insurance might not protect a farmer if something goes wrong when the producer is using a UAV.
‘Evolution in agriculture’
In any case, both UAV advocates and aerial ag applicators say they share the same goal.
“The UAV guys want to work for agriculture. Our guys want to work for agriculture. Now we just have to find a way to work together safely,” Rau says.
David Dvorak has the same attitude. He’s CEO of Field of View, a Grand Forks company that works with UAVs and precision agriculture.
He says he’s talked with a number of aerial ag applicators and found “them a little wary, and rightly so” of UAVs.
On one hand, “They want to figure out if there are ways they can use this (UAVs) in their business,” he says. “It’s just the evolution in agriculture.”
On the other, “They have concern about safety, and it’s a valid concern,” he says.
“At the end of the day, it’s about safety,” Dvorak says. “It’s important (for the UAV industry) to understand how general aviation operates.”
“No one wants to see a situation where an autonomous vehicle is responsible for the death or injury of a human. We just have to take the proper steps to make the chances of that happening as minimal as possible,” Dvorak says.