Aerial applicators hear updates on safety, accuracy

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- With a growing world population and a need to feed it, aerial applicators have a bright future. They just need to take care of it, industry experts told a group of spray pilots in Park Rapids, Minn., May 13.

Dennis Gardisser, president of WRK of Arkansas, LLC, Lonoke, Ark., comes to Park Rapids, Minn., every spring to conduct professional seminars for pilots who do business with R.D. Offutt Co. Photo taken May 13, 2014, at Park Rapids, Minn. (Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. - With a growing world population and a need to feed it, aerial applicators have a bright future. They just need to take care of it, industry experts told a group of spray pilots in Park Rapids, Minn., May 13.

Fargo, N.D.-based R.D. Offutt Co., the company famous for producing and processing potatoes across the country, hosts an annual fly-in professional seminar for the aerial applicators that spray its crops. The company uses third-party audits to make sure it complies with best management practices. BMP is demanded by consumers.

Seminar instructor Dennis Gardisser, president of WRK of Arkansas LLC in Lonoke, Ark., noted this is the 16th year his company has been to the annual seminar, social and plane testing for pilots who work with RDO. Generally, about 25 pilots attend. His company does similar clinics in 35 locations around the country.


Testing on a string


The equipment testing itself is a spray pattern evaluation. The spray is measured by using a non-toxic dye, flown over a 150-foot custom-made string and data collector - a string 1 millimeter in diameter with small filaments. The medium goes onto a spool and then through an analysis machine with proprietary software.

Planes that have been through the process before might need only minor changes.

“Somebody may have put on a propeller that’s a little longer, or somebody might have put a bigger tire on the airplane, or changed the weight and balance characteristics, or simply putting a different pilot in the airplane - the way he flies - can make a difference,” Gardisser says.

Gardisser, who holds a doctorate and is an insurance agent, has sold about 25 copies of the software, worldwide, helping companies that grow everything from potatoes to bananas. The seminar includes updates on manufacturers of different components - nozzles, spreaders, GPS, loading trucks and equipment, security equipment for rinse, load and containment facilities.

“There’s new GPS systems that monitor fields and the way we handle data electronically and get rid of a lot of the paper stuff,” Gardisser says. “There’s always new chemistry that’s a little different to handle, the new 2-4,D dicamba mixes are maybe a little more difficult to apply with some of the crops sensitive to it.”

Computer technology devices, such as iPads, are much smaller and more powerful and capable than in the past. Gardisser says by opening a certain app, the user can see a selection of fields to work with, or a selection of spraying rates.


New BMP draft rules


Loretta Oritz-Ribbing, a research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, discussed new draft form BMPs for potato fungicide application just put out by the department. BMPs are designed to reduce risk and volatilization to harm applicators or others in the area. Draft BMPs came at the request of Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson and written in collaboration with the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University.

Gardisser said the BMPs mostly discuss following protocols that are already on labels.

He said pilots are professionals who are anxious to incorporate the best practices. He said they often drive $1 million airplanes. Aviation insurance and some of the premiums are $50,000 to $60,000 per year. Their fuel costs can be $150,000, and a pilot’s pay can be $100,000 a year. Maintenance can be $30,000.

“That airplane needs to make $250,000 to $300,000 a year before it returns a penny back to the owner,” Gardisser said. “ You’re risking a lot, so you’re hungry for information.”

Keith McGovern, CEO of RDO told the pilots that his company hosts the spring refresher to make sure they’re on the same page.


Be safe out there

“When you’re out there and you’re trying to apply at 25 percent of the length of your wing - which is really low - just be careful,” said McGovern, who is a pilot. “Be smart, do things that keep you safe, your equipment safe, our neighbors safe, the field safe, the crops safe.”


Andy Tibert is a pilot with Agrimax, spraying for three RDO-related farming enterprises. Tibert has been at the meeting for nine years and says the professional development is worth the trip. Tibert said the spray testing was a “verification” and that he was reminded that spray pilots represent the “entire industry, right down to the consumer, eating the French fry.”


Inputs and issues

In the past three years, RDO has reduced phosphorus and nitrogen use in its Park Rapids farm by 40 and 10 percent, respectively, and is developing an alternative fungicide program on 33 percent of its acres around Park Rapids in 2014, as well as changing crop rotations to help with groundwater protection.

He says some new land that RDO is converting to potato production has been mischaracterized as “deforesting” of “native” forestland. Some have expressed concern about irrigation on new potato land in Cass, Wadena and neighboring counties.

“The land has always been cropland, it just happened to be in a crop of trees owned by the Potlatch company,” he said. “It’s actually ag land. We’re just farming it in a different way.”

McGovern said there is “some competition between us and the state of Minnesota to be the purchaser of that land.” Potlatch Corp. is selling 65,000 to 70,000 acres, but RDO isn’t buying land by rivers or lakes, or land with rocks, sloughs or heavy soils.

He noted there currently isn’t a need for more potato acres in the Midwest, and that production is shifting to the Northwest states. He said RDO also grows 7,000 acres of organic crops in Oregon - vegetables (sweet corn, carrots, onions, beans, peas) - and organic feed crops for livestock.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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