Something flying low and loud is zooming through the sky close by. By the time you run outside to see what it is, the noise is fading in the distance. Shading your eyes from the sun, you squint towards the sound. There it is! It’s a small yellow plane, flying so low it seems to skim the tops of the corn plants. What’s going on?
“Crop dusting” is an outdated term for what is now called aerial application. Aerial application means applying crop products using aircraft. Farmers hire aerial applicators to apply such products in crops when conditions are not fit for ground-based equipment.
The terms “aerial applicator,” “ag aviator,” or “ag pilot” are used to describe the pilots who fly agricultural aircraft. “Ag aircraft or Ag planes” refer to the airplanes and helicopters built for the purpose of aerial application.
Ag pilots are highly trained and licensed. They must be capable of flying at low altitudes while avoiding obstacles like power lines and communication towers. They must also have knowledge of how to safely apply products such as fungicides or insecticides to benefit crops without harming nearby homes, gardens, people, or wildlife.
A common use of aerial application is to apply fungicides to corn. Fungicides protect the crop from diseases which would otherwise greatly reduce the amount of grain produced by each plant.
Another role for aerial application is for planting. In some parts of the country, rice is seeded by air. In our area, cover crops like tillage radishes can be planted by flying the seed over a standing crop of corn. When the corn is harvested, the cover crop is already growing and will provide soil benefits for next year’s cash crop.
Most of the spray you see coming from an ag plane is water. (Thus the term “aerial applicator” instead of “crop duster,” as dust is no longer used.) Water is used to dilute and disperse the small amount of active ingredient needed to control a given pest. Rate of flow and even droplet size are carefully calibrated for safety and effectiveness.