Friday, August 28, 2015

Why This Photo Doesn't Scare Me: Crop Dusting

Our farm baby loves one Saturday morning show about a chicken puppet in a costume shop.  Snuggling my girl, watching that show, a roar shook the windows one morning.

No cause for alarm… we occasionally see a military plane fly over. 

… … … rrrrRRRRROOOOOAAAAARRRrrrrr… … … … rrrrRRRRROOOOOAAAAARRRrrrrr… … …

… … … rrrrRRRRROOOOOAAAAARRRrrrrr… … … … rrrrRRRRROOOOOAAAAARRRrrrrr… … …

It takes a lot to elicit a reaction from me.  I may be the compassionate, bleeding-heart type personality; however, dramatic I am not.  After the fifth pass, I grew curious.  After the sixth or seventh, I batted away scary scenarios rolling through my mind.  After the tenth, I finally unwound the toddler and got up to look out the window.
Here’s my view.


My immediate reaction: How cool!  We live and farm in a mix of hills and creek bottoms.  Unlike our friends to the south, we don’t often see a crop duster.  What a treat!
Almost as immediately, I thought about some of my neighbors, and so many folks in society, who would be more terrified of the creepy chemical contraption flying towards my front door than the end-of-the-world scenarios playing out in my head moments earlier. 
And rightly so.  Who wants to be peppered in evil ag-industry fairy dust?  Right...?
Why wasn’t fear my initial reaction?
1)      Products flown on by crop dusters are strictly regulated by the EPA (as are all ag chemicals…by the way.) 

Farmers don’t gleefully broadcast chemicals all over their fields.  For one, waste is costly.  For two, chemicals must be used under prescribed methods, and we can get in deep trouble if we use them improperly.  Think of it as a doctor prescribing you medicine.  If you took the whole bottle, that could endanger your health, even be deadly.  However, if you take it as prescribed by your doctor, not only is it considered safe, but very beneficial to you.  These chemicals survive thorough testing over many years.  Would I care to chug the chemical?  Nope, not really, as that’s not a prescribed use for it.  However, when applied as prescribed, we reap the benefits.

2)      Products flown on by crop dusters are weighted and adhesive.
To continue with the medical analogy, several medicines use additives called adjuvants to help them be more effective.  Many pesticides use adjuvants, as well.  Adjuvants can stick to a chemical molecule to make it heavier (less chance of drift), make it stick to the plant better (less chance of washing away), or a host of other uses.  I’ve known this for years, but even as I write it, I can’t help but think, “Wow, aren’t those in ag technology the best problem solvers ever?”
3)      Crop dusters are exceptionally accurate. 

See how low they are flying?  Also, what you can’t see are the specially designed spray nozzles just for the crop duster that help direct the spray.  That, combined with flying on days when the wind is still, minimizes drift.  Look at the pictures below of our crop.  See the left picture on the row's end where the crop is brown?  That’s where the crop duster skipped.  If the spray were drifting or wide-spread, at all, we wouldn’t see that kind of difference in results as compared to the picture on the right in the same field, where the crop duster did spray the fungicide.

Plus, 2015 has been an extremely wet year.  In the area where we live, we’ve received roughly 125% of our normal rainfall for this time of year.  The result: an overwhelming amount of stunting and disease in our crops.  Yes, rain in July is a treat, but not when it’s 8-12 inches more than normal.  Not that this would ever trump safety, but let me explain how important this crop duster is to agriculture production and our family farm this year.
1)      If not for the crop duster, our crops would be failing.
      Take a look, again, at the photos above.  The end is a spot where the crop duster didn’t go back over like they usually would.  The corn is not turning already (signifying that it is ready to be harvested).  The corn is dying prematurely.  The stalk, not treated with the crop duster’s fungicide, is covered in corn rust.  This fungus turns the plant brown, and feels like “rust” is literally covering the plant.  Most of us remember that in order for photosynthesis to occur, we need GREEN plants.  If not for the fungicide this whole crop would be brown… and dying.
How lucky are we to have technology like fungicide and crop dusters?  We might lose income.  A generation or two ago, we might have gone hungry.
2)      This time, our sprayer couldn’t cut it. 
We do have a sprayer that covers the ground.  You might think this is more accurate (and when using more volatile chemicals, there are procedures to make them more accurate), but as I mentioned earlier, crop dusting is carefully designed.  Still, we already own the ground sprayer, and since our hills make it more difficult for the crop duster, why would we use one? 
Again, in a particularly wet year, the ground sprayer cannot get into the muddy fields without getting stuck.  Another reason, and our need for the crop duster this time: the corn was too tall.  The sprayer would have knocked the corn down at this point in the season.  Like most field work, spraying is incredibly time sensitive.  You saw evidence of this in my previous post.  If the particular weed, fungus, or other pest is not treated at the specific growth stage indicated by the chemicals’ usage label, it will be too late.  The pest will steal all the crops’ resources and vitality, and may even contribute to resistant weeds.  When it’s time to spray, we cannot afford to wait for the ground to dry out or give up because the corn it too tall.

As you can tell, many safety precautions are taken to create safe application conditions.  We’re thankful for this technology because, otherwise, this would be a very bleak year.
Before I go, I want to shout-out to the crop duster: as I mentioned, their job is extremely important.  Even more, their job can be extremely dangerous.  Hills, power lines, trees: all a host of obstacles as they hover close to our crops.  From technology developers to dirty-hands to dusters, I’m feeling grateful for everyone contributing to a safe, quality, and affordable crop.

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