Business: Wet spring means lots of work for local crop dusters

By Alyssa Small

For the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Published Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Yesterday, it was a soil enhancer. Today, it’s a fungicide.

Taking off in his one-man blue-and-white plane with 30 spray nozzles attached to its underside, Paul Newby soared north toward Manhattan to single-handedly prevent disease of one farmer’s crops.

As the only two crop dusters in the Bozeman area, Newby and his partner Cody Folkvord have a busy summer ahead of them.

Because of this year’s heavy rainfall, it’s likely the team of low-flying pilots will be hired to spray fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides and insecticides on an additional 4,000 acres of wheat and potatoes compared to average years, Newby said.

Newby has been in the crop dusting business for 47 years, and he has established a working relationship with more than 300 farmers. He said he works with about 150 farmers, usually spraying 36,000 acres.

Newby and Folkvord might cover more than 40,000 acres this year if conditions stay wet. But nothing is certain in the farming business.

“Everything ebbs and flows,” Newby said. “There’s no telling how things might change in the summer.”

Flying over the spring wheat field, Newby dropped his plane so low over the crops his plane’s wings could take off an average man’s head. He said he drops that low over the fields to prevent the chemicals from blowing too far off-course in the strong wind.

“What they do, it’s kind of an art,” said Sid Schutter, the owner of the fields Newby was spraying Thursday.

Schutter said hiring these artists isn’t an option if a farmer wanted to be successful. Sometimes the prevention of disease is more cost-effective than the cure, he said.

“Once the crops get up tall where you’ll damage them with a ground sprayer, that’s when the aerial applicators come in,” Schutter said.

He said the planes are even more valuable after a huge storm such as last year’s hail. The chemicals that fix damages caused by large hail and fast winds can be applied more efficiently from an airplane than from ground sprayers.

Glen Droge of Manhattan said spraying crops, whether from the ground or the air, makes a huge difference in yield.

“It could be the difference between a good crop or losing 70 percent of your crop,” he said.

Droge said he uses aerial applicators every year, though he tries to limit the extent that he uses them. In his fields, Droge said he uses crop dusters for his grains and potatoes.

“We sprayed winter wheat for stripe rust,” he said. “The cool, wet spring brought that on. I haven’t decided yet if we’ll spray the spring wheat for scab yet. That decision’s coming soon.”

Newby said he’s seeing a spike in potato spraying. Most potato farmers choose the aerial crop dusting over ground spraying to avoid damaging crops.

Seed potatoes are highly susceptible to disease in damp conditions, and more farmers have chosen to spray their crops more heavily because of the cool, wet spring.

Droge said he never uses ground sprayers for his potatoes after the initial spray.

If weather conditions turn back to wet and cool, he said he won’t hesitate to spray his potatoes for late blight, the potato disease that was rife in northern Montana last year.

“We’ve never had late blight in the valley, but there’s no reason we can’t, either,” Droge said. “It takes a lot of scouting and watching to protect crops.”

Bill Cole of Manhattan said he avoids crop dusting for as long as he can, choosing instead to use his ground sprayer.

“I only use aerial applicators in emergencies,” he said. “Airplanes just aren’t designed for putting on pesticides.”

Cole said emergencies tend to happen late in the season with fungi on his potatoes. He said that is when crop dusters shine.

“I’m not anti-crop duster,” he said. “They definitely have their place.”

Cole admitted this year he might need to call in for extra help because of the early wet weather, but he remained hopeful that it wouldn’t be necessary.

“There will certainly be more pressure to spray later, but it’s hot and dry now,” he said.