Crop dusting has changed since 9/11 but still thriving in state

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Published: May 3,2004

Small, low-flying airplanes buzzing over fields and timber are a familiar and necessary cog in the wheels of agriculture and the timber industry. Sometimes their movements are as entertaining as stunt fliers. Their services, however, are anything but frivolous.

“Spraying is very important to agriculture. Insects can put you out of business. It`s as simple as that,” said Will Green Poindexter, executive director of the Mississippi Agriculture Aviation Association (MAAA) headquartered in Inverness. “Spraying must be done in a timely fashion. Insects build and a farmer can`t miss a cycle.”

Immediately following the September 11 tragedy, crop dusting planes with their ominous-looking white substances were suspicious and grounded for two weeks. This timing hurt agriculture tremendously, Green said.

“September is a very important time for agriculture because that`s when crops are foliated,” he said. “Everything is different now and we think about it differently. We never worried before.”

Gary Bright of Bright Aviation Services in Sidon says he is careful about not getting into restricted areas, stays away from main towns and talks to law enforcement officers where his pilots will be flying.

“We’ve had to become more aware and more careful,” he said, “even though we’ve always been careful with chemicals and kept it locked up. We have a good, trained crew and go over the regulations with them.”

Bright said he`s even talked with FBI agents about his concerns. He also feels the MAAA has been helpful in allaying the fears of members.

Thrash Aviation of Pelahatchie fertilizes pine trees all over the southeastern United States with the same type of non-poisonous chemical used on gardens and flowerbeds. Owner Jimmy Thrash says he`s had no trouble operating his planes because he alerts communities where his pilots fly.

“We try to tell everyone what we’re doing, especially out of normal crop dusting areas,” he said. “We focus on a positive image and contact newspapers and law enforcement agencies in areas where we operate.”

The press release Thrash sends to newspapers reads in part, “Due to events in the nation, concerns for safety, and fears of the public, Thrash Aviation would like to inform you that their operation is safe and a benefit to the economy. The material being applied is dry granular and non-toxic. It is harmless to people, livestock, homes and vehicles.”

Thrash, who employs 15 people and works in 12 states, says his business has grown every year since it was started in 1996, except the year of September 11. One of his pilots, Cleo King of Brookhaven, said the only difference he`s noticed is that he feels he`s being scrutinized more. He points out that shooting a crop dusting plane is a federal offense. A recent case in Arkansas resulted in a guilty verdict and a sentence of six months in federal prison with no parole.

“Deer season is the only time I think I might have a gun pointed at me,” King said. “I’m constantly watching for orange down there but there are some places we can`t fly the first week of the season.”

Gary Bright has been in the crop dusting business since 1984. He operates three planes and has three pilots and three ground people. Cotton, soybeans and rice are the chief crops his company services. They mainly fly in Leflore, Carroll, Holmes, Sunflower, Grenada and Tallahatchie counties beginning in February and work through November of each year.

“There are some risks in this business,” he said “but we have good equipment and keep it well maintained.”

Poindexter said of the 96 businesses who make up the MAAA, “These guys are caught up in the same things everyone else in agriculture is facing. They can`t raise prices too much and it`s tough right now.”

He said agriculture has had a good year with good yields and prices, but it takes several of this kind of year to get over one bad year.

“The expense of planting is tremendous and everything that grows must be sprayed,” said Poindexter, who farmed for 27 years before becoming MAAA`s director two years ago. “Agriculture has changed drastically and the people in it are good, hard working people.”

For agriculture aviation, he says the planes are getting bigger and some can now haul 750 gallons of chemicals rather than the 250 they used to haul. The equipment is getting wider and it takes fewer people to do the work.

Thrash Aviation operates two crews and five planes that have the capability of spreading 500 tons of fertilizer a day. That`s equal to twenty 18-wheeler loads.

“Fertilization is an essential part of the maintenance and growth process that improves the well-being of our future forests,” Thrash said. “This fertilizer is a routine application on young and mid-rotation pine tree forests.”

King, who retired as an Air Force major, is currently fertilizing pine trees but has also flown as a crop duster. He says it`s gotten harder to spray for several reasons.

“The chemicals have changed and there are more Environmental Protection Agency regulations,” he said. “Spraying isn`t done as often because chemicals are put into seeds to resist bugs. It`s like having a pesticide inside the seed. And there`s hardly any spraying for boll weevils anymore.”

He adds that crop dusters have three months of heavy work and two of light work but the flying runs year round for fertilizing trees. Pine trees are a huge part of the economy in Mississippi and other Southern states.

“I didn`t realize there were so many pine trees,” he said. “We will never run out of pine trees.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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