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Published June 02, 2014, 09:37 AM

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.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

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.

Several challenges

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.

Getting started

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.”

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