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SALUTE TO AGRICULTURE: Farmers look to the sky to get the job done

HILLSBORO, N.D. -- With more than 30 years of crop dusting experience in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, "acres of experience" is how Ron Deck, chief manager of Sky-Tractor Supply Co. L.L.C., describes the aerial spray company...

Ron Deck, chief manager of Sky-Tractor, checks the nozzles on the wings of one of his aircrafts. Sky-Tractor, an aerial crop spraying operation out of North Dakota, is using new technology such as GPS and flow control systems to change the way crops are dusted. Dustin Finkelstein, staff photographer

HILLSBORO, N.D. -- With more than 30 years of crop dusting experience in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, "acres of experience" is how Ron Deck, chief manager of Sky-Tractor Supply Co. L.L.C., describes the aerial spray company's services.

Sky-Tractor, which is based near Hillsboro, N.D., is a Hemisphere GPS product dealer and one of three leading Hemisphere Level 3 Service Centers in the country.

"GPS is a big part of our business. The company as a level 3 service station can basically fix anything," says Dale Hartel, GPS technician. "We can take circuit boards apart, disassemble them and work on them and then put them back together."

Deck has been in the aerial spray business since 1969. His first plane was a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub with a 60-gallon belly tank. He retired from flying in 2006.

The company, originally called Deck's Flying Service, moved to Hillsboro in 1970. Around 1982, Deck's Flying Service bought Sky-Tractor, an aerial spray company near Waseca, Minn.


Sky-Tractor was a local aircraft parts dealer for local sales in Minnesota. Deck expanded the business to a nationwide parts dealer and kept the Sky-Tractor name after the company expanded.

Sky-Tractor's crew consists of three pilots, Mike Deck, Buzz Amundson and Vance Bakke; four mechanics, Jay Alfson, Mike Aasen, Jeff Voeller and Bruce Carlson; GPS technicians Scott Vettel and Dale Hartel; mixer-loaders Dean Deck, Dean "Rocker" McDonald and Tim Taylor; parts manager Peggy Clemendson; office manager Bobby Svaleson; and office assistant Jessica Deck.


Sky-Tractor is both a nationwide aircraft parts distributer and an aerial spray company for counties in Minnesota and North Dakota. The company sells and advertizes around the world.

The company's aerial spray business covers the counties of Norman and Polk in Minnesota and Traill in North Dakota.

A typical day at Sky-Tractor Supply Co. is planned around spray orders, wind directions, crop varieties and chemical brands. Spray orders may take two to three trips to complete based on several factors, including the field's shape, neighboring crops, wind and the chemicals being applied.

Sky-Tractor deals mainly with insecticides, fungicides and herbicides.

"Fungicide and insecticide are usually sprayed in the early morning and evening hours," Mike Deck says. "While herbicides are usually done during the heat of the day, when there is little or no inversions."


To protect neighboring crops, herbicides must only be sprayed with certain weather and wind conditions.

"When the sun goes down and temp inversions start, we have to stop some days. Fog indicates temp inversions, but so does the dust like you see around combines and tractors," Ron Deck says. "It doesn't have to be that bad to be bad for us. Smoke doesn't rise, and neither do small droplets of chemical."

Wind direction is important in ensuring that chemicals do not carry to other fields and put other crops at risk.

"We can't tell how far the products will go, and the slightest wind could move the product in these conditions," Ron Deck says. "Herbicide work is critical, so we can't chance having the product go a long way off course."

A northwest wind is commonly needed to carry out crop-dusting orders. Some orders may need two or more different wind directions to complete.

If a highway is in the path of a spray route, the public needs to be taken into consideration. Some people may become sensitive or have a reaction to the chemicals; which is one reason wind direction is so important.

When Sky-Tractor plots its spray routes, Deck says they may contact owners of neighboring fields to learn about the crops planted in their fields. This allows them to devise their spray plan to avoid damaging crops.

"Some chemicals are so crop specific that we can't chance wind carrying the chemical onto another crop and killing it," Ron Deck says. "Almost every chemical has specifics that we have to follow so we don't kill other crops. If we are using less-sensitive chemicals, more gets done."


The amount of acreage that Sky-Tractor covers on a daily basis varies day to day depending upon a number of factors such as wind directions, crop varieties and chemical types. On a good day, the company may get 2,000 acres sprayed. On a bad day, the crew may not even be able to finish a field.


"We don't leave wheel tracks on the fields or drive down and hurt the crops. A farmer could have us spray, and basically, it wouldn't cost them a thing compared to the cost that the loss from tractors and truck sprayers leave by driving down the crops and leaving wheel tracks in the fields," Deck says. "The farmers could just as well pay us to spray and not have the damage cost on top of the spray cost."

Sky-Tractor sprays a number of crop varieties: sunflowers, wheat, barley, bean varieties, conventional and Roundup Ready crops.

"We have been doing some fields for cutworms. We are also doing a lot with herbicides for spring, our usual spring and summer work," Deck says. "When crops such as wheat are in late boot and early heading, we put fungicides on for farmers. Occasionally, we spray with Headline fungicide, as this is a proven yield booster and farmers like that."

Farmers in Traill County have a wide variety of aerial spray operators. There are six aerial spray operations that operate within the county.

"Traill County is fortunate to have a number of spray operations that can take care of the farmer's needs," Deck says. "You go into Iowa and some other states, and they have a shortage of spray operations."

Headline fungicide is a chemical that Iowa farmers want and need for crops such as corn. According to Deck, Headline is proven to improve a farmer's yield by up to 20 to 25 bushels an acre. With a small investment of $20, Deck says that farmers could double, triple or even quadruple their money.


There are about 20 spray operators in the entire state of Iowa. Because there is a short window of time allotted for the application of Headline fungicide, Iowa had to call in reinforcements for spraying needs. Sky-Tractor currently has a plane in Iowa.

Aerial spraying

"A good spray nozzle is essential. It is the whole reason for the aerial spraying, the airplane is just the transportation unit for the business," Deck says. "The nozzles are what it's all about."

The new Triple Tip Flat-Fan Nozzle allows quick selection while spraying. The nozzles are easy to turn and switch around while preparing the plane for a crop dusting trip.

Each nozzle is uniquely color coded according to its output: gray nozzles spray 1 gallon per minute, orange nozzles spray 1.2 gallons per minute, green nozzles spray 1.5 gallons per minute and yellow nozzles spray 2 gallons per minute.

"It's not easy work, aerial spraying, it's a specialized job," Deck says. "You can't just go downtown and say, 'Hey I'm looking for a pilot.' There is a large demand for pilots right now. Airplanes and pilots come from allover."

Sky-Tractor's fleet of Walter turbine-powered, Grumman/Schweizer, Ag-Cat aircrafts is equipped with Satloc M3 GPS systems and Aerial Ace flow control. These systems allow pilots more control and better application rates when spraying.

Ag-Cats have four wings and a 400-gallon tank. Sky-Tractor converted the plane's engines from 600-horsepower engines to 751-horsepower engines. The new conversions and upgrades allow the planes better lift, accuracy and performance. The planes can fly at lower speeds, which allow better coverage while spraying.


Sky-Tractor currently operates three Walter turbine-powered Ag-Cats. Ag-Cats are suited to spray all types of crops and fields and can reach areas that other spray planes may not be able to.

"Sky-Tractor strives to do the best work with the best equipment," Mike Deck says. "Customer service is a large priority at Sky-Tractor."

Crop consultants give product recommendations to Sky-Tractor so the company can select products that will work to spray the farmer's fields with. Label requirements and consultant recommendations determine the type and volume of chemical that will be sprayed by Sky-Tractor.

Products must be labeled for air in order for aerial spray companies to use them.

The flat rate for Sky-Tractor's services has been raised because of high fuel prices. A fuel surcharge of 30 cents an acre was added, causing the company's flat rate to go up to about $7.25 an acre.

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