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Minnesota's Carlson Ag Aviation flies into spray season

It’s been a busy summer for Carlson Ag Aviation of Wendell, Minn., and Wheaton, Minn., but the busy seasons of late July and August are coming up. Owners Boone and Charity Carlson bought the business from his father in 2010 and added the Wheaton location in 2020. Demand for aerial application will depend on crop prices and weather anomalies yet to come.

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Boone and Charity Carlson and their son, Alex Salwasser, work in the family’s Carlson Ag Aviation business near Wendell, Minn. The couple in 2016 bought the business from Boone’s father, Lynn, and in 2020 added a second location at Wheaton, Minn. Photo taken June 19, 2021, at Wheaton, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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WHEATON, Minn. — With prices up, farmers have been more anxious to protect their crops, but they also have to weigh the impact of drought. That means there are a lot of unknowns about whether 2021 will be a big year for the aerial spray business in west-central Minnesota.

All this is on the minds of Boone Carlson, 45, and his wife, Charity, 42, and their family and crew who operate Carlson Ag Aviation, which is based at Wendell in western Minnesota but with a second location about 35 miles away at Wheaton, Minn.

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Boone and Charity Carlson and their son, Alex Salwasser, work in the family’s Carlson Ag Aviation business near Wendell, Minn. The couple in 2016 bought the business from Boone’s father, Lynn, and in 2020 added a second location at Wheaton, Minn. Photo taken June 19, 2021, at Wheaton, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

In mid-July, about a quarter of the season’s expected aerial spraying had been done. The bulk of aerial applications are yet to come in mid-July to August.

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Like every year, 2021 is its own mix.

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One of Carlson Ag Aviation’s three Sky Tractor planes taxis toward the hangar after supplying fertilizer and fungicide to crops on July 2, 2021, near Wendell, Minn. Photo taken July 2, 2021, at Wendell, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Much of the weed spraying is done on the ground. Insect pests are often a job for spray pilots but they’re hard to predict.

“I’ve never figured out ‘bugs’ yet,” Boone said, smiling, referring to how they'll affect the business in a given year. "Some years, they just show up and we get busy with them. I haven’t figured bugs out yet. If someone figured it out, let me know; I can plan for it.”

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Alex Salwasser, 17, works summers as a “loader” for his parents’ Carlson Ag Aviation company based in Wendell, Minn. He mixes the products, loads the airplane, wash the window, fuel it, among other things. Photo taken July 2, 2021, at Wendell, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

This year, the company has seen a continuation of a gentle rise in fungicide use on their corn and beans.

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“We’re not really hit hard with corn diseases in this area, because we’re further north,” he said. They are a bigger problem in warmer, drier climates, but farmers are often seeing “general plant health” benefits from fungicides. Yield monitoring technology in the combine helps farmers see differences between treated and untreated corn, he said.

New generation

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Charity Carlson, office manager for Carlson Ag Aviation, Inc., at Wendell, Minn., goes over maps with pilot Andrew Asleson. Photo taken Photo taken July 2, 2021, at Wendell, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Boone grew up at Northfield, Minn., where his parents, Lynn and Robin Carlson, both worked for Malt-O-Meal. Lynn originally was from a farm in Wendell, Minn., where he would start Carlson Ag Aviation in 1985. In 2000, Lynn was president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association.

Boone, the oldest child, helped his father with the business in the summertime. After high school, Boone went on to ag aviation school at Crookston, Minn. After working briefly with his father, he took a management post at Barrett (Minn.) Farm Supply, an ag retail company not far from the Carlson Ag Aviation site in Wendell. He spent 15 years helping farmers with crop protection materials, fertilizer and seed, and ground application.

In 2000, Boone purchased his uncle’s farm, where he continues to raises corn, soybeans, wheat and sugarbeets. In 2009, Boone married Charity, who had grown up on a farm near Carlson Ag Aviation. The Carlsons have three children, including Alex Salwasser, 17, and their sons Turner Carlson, 10, and Henry Carlson, 8.

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Boone Carlson conducts a “jar test” to verify that a fumigant will properly tank mix with some fertilizer to be applied with his Carlson Ag Aviation planes on July 2, 2021. Some improper combinations turn to a “toothpaste” like consistency, he said. Photo taken July 2, 2021, at Wendell, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

In 2016, Boone and Charity purchased Carlson Ag Aviation from his father Lynn. In 2020, they added the Wheaton-Dumont Aerial Spraying business, about 35 miles to the southwest. They operate from both locations.

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Charity remembers waking up to hear Lynn Carlson buzzing over the house at 5:30 a.m. with his first aerial spray loads of the day. It didn’t bother her.

“I understood,” she said. “My dad farmed, too.”

Charity had a career as a paralegal but took on management chores with the expanding ag aviation business.

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Charity Carlson, office manager for Carlson Ag Aviation, Inc., at Wendell, Minn., studies application maps and plans with pilot Andrew Asleson. Photo taken Photo taken July 2, 2021, at Wendell, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Today, she manages the books and office for their farm and for Carlson Ag Aviation. The business offers aerial spraying of dry and liquid fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, as well as aerial seeding. They also offer ground spraying and full service crop protection chemical sales.

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Carlson Ag Aviation crews do the bulk of their work for about a dozen regular customers, protecting their crops primarily from insect and disease threats. The two-generation company also does ground spraying and provides seeds cover crop seed via airplane. Photo taken July 2, 2021, at Wendell, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

She said the work suits her.

“I like helping growers, meeting with them and doing their maps with them, coming up with a plan with them to get best price and products for their farm,” she said. She has to become familiar with new products, or generic forms, including rates, that must be learned and incorporated into plans.

Carlson Ag Aviation flies Air Tractors, a brand of spray plane. All three planes hold 500 gallons.

The company takes care of 15 to 20 growers in a given year, Boone said, accounting for about 80% of their business. The number of acres depends on the year.

“If there’s bugs, obviously that’s a plane job,” he said. “It’s later in the season. Some farmers will simply hire the spraying done because they are tired from spraying weeds. ‘Just call the plane in and get it done.’”

No compaction

The Carlson crew is diverse. Pilots include Andrew Asleson and Tyler Vold, who grew up in the area, and Dustin Mellette of Wisconsin. They have a ground crew, including Brad Olson and their son Alex.

Mellettee, 38, lives in Wheaton, Minn., in June, July and August during spray season, and goes home to his wife and child in Wisconsin. He was raised in Florida, started a career in construction and then became an ag pilot, moving to the Midwest in 2015. He hired on with the Carlsons in 2020.

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Dustin Mellette, 38, lives in Wisconsin but is an agricultural pilot at Wheaton, Minn., in June, July and August for Carlson Ag Aviation with headquarters in Wendell, Minn. Photo taken June 19, 2021, at Wheaton, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Mellette said some clients had seen bug pests on alfalfa fields. After spraying fungicide, he expected to be flying on some cover crop seed in late July and August. They’ll seed radish, fall rye, turnips or other crops that can go into standing row crops. When the farmers are harvesting the soybeans, the cover crop seeds are starting to grow, he said.

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In 2020, Carlson Ag Aviation, Inc., of Wendell, Minn., purchased the former Wheaton-Dumont Co-op Aerial Spraying in 2020, a tidy hangar operated out of the Wheaton Municipal Airport at Wheaton, Minn. Photo taken June 19, 2021, at Wheaton, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“It’s becoming more and more prominent,” he said.

The cover crops manage drainage and washouts, to keep the soil together. And with a plane, there's no soil compaction.

Boone acknowledged that the cover crop seeding has grown in the past decade and can account for 10% of their work.

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A cheerful wind scale model airplane serves as a wind vane at the Carlson Ag Aviation Inc. headquarters near Wendell, Minn. The company also has a location at Wheaton, Minn. Photo taken Photo taken July 2, 2021, at Wendell, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Charity said it’s hard to say how the business will evolve. Son Alex works there full-time in the summer, is planning a career in agriculture and may work toward a pilot’s license. Their two younger children seem to be fairly interested in the enterprise. She said the biggest risk is a season in which there is some kind of general crop failure, perhaps a drought, or perhaps a storm.

“Every year is stressful but generally it seems to work out,” Charity said.

Boone, who worked around the business all his life, is philosophical and upbeat.

“There’s no problems in this business, just challenges,” he said. Together, they’ll rise above every obstacle.

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