Wind grounds aerial applicators

There are two windows in George Tidwell's office. Out one window he can see a chemical loading area and, in the distance, an airplane hangar. Out the other window are two young trees being whipped around by a powerful wind.

“Will you look at those poor trees?” says the veteran aerial applicator between near-constant phone calls. “I'm tired of seeing that. I wish this wind would quit so we can get back to work.”

Tidwell, owner/operator of a flying service between Lonoke and Carlisle, Ark., isn't alone in this desire. Because of high winds since mid-May, aerial applicators all over the state have been unable to spray.

“The length of time for such severe wind is incredible,” says Mark Hartz, owner/operator of Grand Prairie Dusters in Almyra, Ark. “It's been very difficult — we're losing jobs every day. It's hard to get stuff done.”

By now, Tidwell says, “every aerial applicator I talk to is behind on his work. The wind began blowing out of the southwest a couple of weeks ago. Since then, we've been able to fertilize, but have done very little spraying. It's been very, very frustrating.”

Occasionally, early in the morning, the wind dies down enough to allow pilots to spray for an hour or so. Then the wind picks back up, and Tidwell is back to watching the trees outside his window.

Tied hands

When the wind hits, it can jump from 5 miles per hour to 15 or 20, Tidwell says. That's not conducive to spraying and means “we're getting farther and farther behind in our work. Our hands are tied, though — what can be done safely in these wind speeds?

“If the wind continues to blow like this and weeds keep growing, that's when things get scary. Folks might get desperate and get in a hurry and take chances they shouldn't. We'll end up with a lot of drift complaints if we're not careful.”

Hartz says he's yet to have a farmer get “really heavy-handed” wanting their fields sprayed. Instead, “most of the time farmers are just calling to ask, ‘Did you get me sprayed yet? Can you get to me? Can you get my fields today?’ We get those calls every morning — and if I was a farmer I'd be making those calls, too. The answer to those calls, unfortunately, is ‘no — we haven't sprayed your fields yet… too windy.’ Believe me, I wish that weren't the case.”

But while Hartz's clientele isn't squeezing him to get the job done, that isn't the case everywhere. “It's no excuse, but it may be why there are reports of some pilots going out and making applications in these winds. That makes it doubly tough for those of us abiding by the rules and trying to keep some common sense about this.”

Tidwell, who also serves as chairman of the Arkansas Plant Board, says he knows when a farmer plants a crop he wants it sprayed on time. “No one wants to get that crop sprayed more than I — that's my livelihood. But there are times when conditions won't permit me to spray. The folks who spray regardless of wind are the ones driving insurance costs up and giving ag chemicals a bad name.”

Hartz says it's even more disturbing because it isn't “necessarily rogue pilots doing this. I've heard some respected ag pilots are slipping out and making ill-advised applications. That's unprecedented. Good operators will normally wait the wind out. The present situation is so bad and we're so far behind, though, that even those who have exercised restraint in the past are willing to take chances. But don't forget the bottom line: when it's too windy to spray, just don't.”

Both men say aerial applicators in the state are calling each other to commiserate and check if the wind has died down in someone else's area.

“And we're also talking about who's going out making applications in this wind — we're mindful of anyone doing that,” says Hartz.

Further complications

Even with perfect conditions, an aerial applicator's job is difficult. At the worst of times, the job is treacherous.

“You know, besides the drift issues, it's really hazardous for pilots to even be flying in these winds,” says Hartz. “We're putting out fertilizer and that's risky enough. We're getting our butts kicked every time we get in the plane.”

And then there is the added complication of “the diversity of crop types around,” says Tidwell. “Clearfield rice and Roundup Ready crops are great, provided there's no wind. Newpath (used on Clearfield rice) isn't bad to drift, but there's a 5 miles per hour wind restriction on it. We've gotten really stacked up with that crop.”

Tidwell believes the time has come — “since we've gotten so diversified in an area that once grew only conventional rice, soybeans and wheat” — to rethink some aspects of farming.

“For years, we were able to spray rice and didn't have to worry much about the wheat since it was far enough along to overcome drift damage. Now, though, farming neighbors are going to have to talk to one another. They need to know if a neighbor is going to plant Clearfield rice, a Roundup Ready crop or a conventional.” Farmers, says Tidwell, need to consider planning their planting schemes based on several things — one of those being what will work next to a neighbor's crops.

“There's one situation I'm aware of where some farmers have already done that. They got together and planted a big block of Clearfield rice that's easy for us to get to and spray. If farmers will get together and do that, it'll help get products out on their crops in a timely manner and prevent drift damage. That benefits everyone.”

Lines of communication

Hartz has seen the same things and says lines of communication between all members of the agriculture industry must be opened or widened. “Over the years, there seems to have been a loss of community,” he says. “There are tensions everywhere — whether from prior drift troubles or whatever. It's to the point where producers don't want to ask what's planted in the field adjacent to theirs.”

Hartz points to a situation where several weeks passed before some Clearfield rice was sprayed with Newpath. The hold-up was due to the Clearfield farmer being reluctant to ask what a neighboring field held.

“He assumed his neighbor's field wasn't Clearfield and didn't want to take a chance of damaging it. Well, it turns out that field was planted in Clearfield and we could have sprayed it at any time. I'm not fussing, but we must communicate with each other.”

Tidwell agrees, pointing to another situation with early application of Newpath on Clearfield rice. “Some producers didn't have the forethought, or maybe didn't know enough about Newpath, to ask their neighbors what they planned to plant adjacent to the Clearfield acres. Well, Newpath was blown over onto worked ground and when conventional rice was planted there, it died. All it would've taken to prevent that was a phone call.”

Then, there are the situations where a Clearfield rice field is completely surrounded by conventional rice fields. Tidwell says such a situation isn't uncommon.

“If the weather cooperates, (such fields) can be managed,” he says. “But in winds like we've been having, we won't even get near that field to spray. That would be crazy.”

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