Crop dusters turn heads upward

Staff writer

Gordon and Judy Pendergraft look up every time they hear a plane flying overhead. The couple, who lives near the airport runway at Marion County Park and Lake, has a special interest in planes as they are both retired from Beachcraft. Judy even used to pilot for the company.

Lately, several yellow crop dusting planes have captured their interest with heightened activity from dawn to dusk at the airport. Flying for Ag Service out of rural Hillsboro, the yellow planes are spraying fungicide on area wheat fields to kill and prevent yield-lowering diseases.

“I just think they are so fascinating to watch,” Judy Pendergraft said. “They have been flying non-stop for about 10 days now and it is wonderful to see so much action at the airport.”

Jeff Mayfield, Ag Service agronomist, said the crop dusters had a specific mission and a short timeframe in which to complete it.

“We are using a product that prevents disease,” he said. “It has to be applied before the wheat pollinates to be effective.”

The fungicide currently applied by spraying has been formulated to kill wheat diseases such as tan spot and powdery mildew, among other game changers. It also improves plant health, creating a more vigorous stand.

Mayfield said the planes were at the tail end of their service in the area but had been in big demand by farmers because the fields were too wet to get in with heavy equipment.

“We are starting to send out the ground rigs now,” Mayfield said on Tuesday. “The fields are drying and the wheat is going to start heading out soon.”

Mayfield said the pilots soaring through local air space in the yellow planes were all very experienced.

“We partner with Tyree Ag out of Kinsley and these pilots fly better than anyone else,” he said. “We have three working here in Marion County. Two of them have 30 plus years of experience, the other one has 20 years.”

Experience gives the pilots confidence to maneuver through tricky turns at the ends of the fields, avoiding hazardous power lines and tree rows.

“There is no size of field too small,” Mayfield said. “They are able to spray down right into the corners.”

Mayfield said it was his job to group fields and provide pilots with the correct coordinates.

“We give them map coordinates and they plug the longitude and latitude in their GPS systems,” he said. “They always get the right field.”

Pendergraft said she could tell by listening if the crop dusting planes were approaching.

“They sound different from the regular small planes because the use jet fuel and have a turbo prop,” she said. “I am just amazed at how low to the field they get, and then just zip back up into the sky and come again.”

There are some hazards associated with crop dusting, but nothing on record indicates that chemicals in the fungicide spray are harmful to human health.

“They do not fly when it is windy, dark, or there are severe storms in the area so we have very little drifting,” Mayfield said. “This is a pretty beneficial application.”

Neither Hillsboro Community Hospital nor St. Luke Hospital in Marion logged any health complaints or respiratory emergencies in the past week due to crop dusting spray.

“I don’t think it has been a problem,” said Jeremy Ensey, chief nursing officer at St. Luke. “We obviously don’t know for sure, but as long as people don’t stand directly under the spray, I don’t think it is a health problem.”

Marion County Sheriff Rob Craft said there were no reported accidents attributed distracted drivers, but he did caution motorists to pull over if they planned to watch the planes for an extended time.

 

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