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Ag aviators aren’t against wind power, but they want farmland owners to know that making lease deals can affect the ability of aerial applicators to get to crops beneath the in areas of high tower populations. (Forum News Service/Agweek/File photo, courtesy National Agricultural Aviation Association.)

Aerial sprayers urged be vigilant

 ST. CLOUD, Minn.—Aerial applicators won't be applying some of the new and improved chemical formulations on this year's new herbicide-tolerant crops, but experts are urging them to keep an eye out for illegal use anyway.

New herbicide formulations of 2,4-D and dicamba are allowed to be sprayed on crops like soybeans in this region, but only from the ground, said Andrew Thostenson, a North Dakota State University Extension Service pesticide program specialist, one of the speakers on Feb. 14 at the Tri-State Agricultural Aviation Association annual conference and trade show in St. Cloud, Minn. The show drew more than 200 pilots from Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota.

"Obviously, aerial applicators are always in the public eye," Thostenson said. "They have these fantastic machines that buzz around and make all kinds of noise. The implication is that whenever there's a drift problem it must be something to do those aerial applicators. I'm concerned that if they don't know what's going on they may suffer blame for some of the problems we might see out there."

Volatility of the chemicals historically has been a significant concern for some of the older formulations of 2,4-D herbicides. Thostenson credited technology and chemical companies Monsanto, Dow and BASF for coming up with "vast improvements" over old formulations, but there are lots of new hoops to jump through.

False start

Last year was a false start, Thostenson said. In the mid-South — the "boot heel" of Missouri, and Arkansas — farmers have faced terrible problems with the weed Palmer amaranth. "Palmer" is a pigweed species that is large and produces hundreds of thousands of seeds per plant. The chemical and seed companies started to develop traits that have provided a tool to deal with Palmer for the first time.

The herbicide-tolerant seed got into the 2016 supply chain, but there were no approved chemicals to go with them. But the new, anti-drift, low volatility chemical formulations had not yet gone through the Environmental Protection Agency approval process. Last year some farmers — not commercial applicators — illegally applied the old formulations of the chemical, and some of that led to serious drift damage cases.

Faced with enormous financial pressures from low commodity prices and Palmer weed, some farmers surreptitiously traveled to nearby states and purchased the old formulations.

"They thought, I'm going to just go and buy the generic stuff and make the application," Thostenson said. "They didn't understand that they had a tiger in the tank."

The result? Thousands of acres of soybeans were damaged last year by dicamba spray drift in the mid-South, and legal actions are ongoing. One farmer in Arkansas who damaged a neighbor is in court on March 13 for murder charges for shooting him when he was confronted.

No repeat, please

"I've been in this industry more than 30 years, and I've never seen anyone get killed over a drift incident before," Thostenson said. "It's just crazy. I can't even fathom it, really."

He said the industry must guard against anything similar in 2017.

Dominique Youakaim of Charleston, Ill., president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, attended the event and, along with Gary Jerger of Moorhead, Minn., discussed national issues. Youakaim said NAAA includes 1,600 aerial applicators, which is about half of the total. He said the organization is heavily involved in the national re-registration of all current chemical products which could jeopardize aerial application labels for many chemicals now used, dangers from meteorological towers that collect information to prove wind quality for wind tower turbines and guarding against drone issues.

Safety issues are No. 1, Jerger said, and the NAAA also is working on establishing rules that would clarify prohibitions for spraying in the Waters of the United States, often called WOTUS, a proposed EPA regulation.

Perry Hofer, owner of Doland Aerial Spraying of Doland, S.D., likened his job to a nurse in human health care. Among the issues he's most focused on is how crop protectors can guard against pest resistance to insecticides and herbicides.

Tim "Toby" McPherson, owner of Tall Towers Aviation, Page, N.D., will mark his 40th spray season in 2017. Recertification, education and updates are important, he says, as well as networking. Of his concerns, the proliferation of drones and the dangers to unsuspecting spray pilots are a major issue for crop dusters and all pilots.

"It'll be a good tool, but we're going to have to have something that identifies them as drone in the area," McPherson said. He's also concerned about wind turbine farms and the meteorological towers.

Drones ahead

Regarding drones, Kevin Morris, Minneapolis district director of the Federal Aviation Administration Safety Team, told conference-goers that there is increasing talk about the possibility of spot-applying some crop protectants with drones, but the liquid material is so far too heavy for most applications.

"In rural communities, companies are out to sell their UAS product to farmers, and farmers don't know to ask the questions: Are you authorized? Do you have an exemption?" Morris said.

Federal and state officials are studying how to authorize drone operators to spray product.

"If you look at the history of drones, that's probably a short-term barrier," Morris says. "It's going to happen, just a matter of when."