At 11:15 a.m. Friday, aerial applicators were given the go-ahead to fly and spray fields.

“We don’t know how long the okay is for, but pilots will be in the air as long as possible. There’s a lot of spraying that needs to be done, so hopefully we’ll knock a lot of the work out,” says Mark Hartz, treasurer of the National Agricultural Aviation Association.

Before taking off, Hartz suggests aerial applicators call their county sheriff to inform them of the flying ban being lifted.

EARLIER STORY:

Despite a distance of several days from the devastating terrorist attacks on the east coast, confusion still reigns across the country. Even the Delta has seen its share.

On Thursday morning, almost as fast as they got into the air, aerial applicators were yanked down again. With jobs to be done and crop problems arising, the grounding of agricultural airplanes is "pathetic," says one pilot in Arkansas.

"Early this morning I was given a press release that said the national air-space system was to be re-opened at 10 a.m. for commercial and private planes. Around 8 a.m., I was told by the FAA safety office in Little Rock that there was confirmation that the opening applied to agricultural aviation as well," says the pilot.

With that confirmation, the pilot and his colleagues began calling other aerial applicators with the news. When the clock struck 10, many were in the air and spraying. Then, around 10:30, "we got a message that oops, agricultural applicators weren’t covered. So now we’ve got to shut it down. We’re way behind on spraying. We’ve got the boll weevil eradication program to work on, we’ve got rice that needs spraying, we’ve got soybeans with worms, and there are all kinds of cotton fields needing defoliation. We need someone with common sense to give us the go-ahead to get back in the air."

Mark Hartz, treasurer of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, agrees.

"Ag aviation isn’t a threat to anyone. It’s hard to highjack a single-seat aircraft, you know? There have been some concerns that biological terrorism might be one of the reasons we’ve been grounded, but I feel that won’t happen. We need to get back in the air," says Hartz, who also operates Grand Prairie Dusters, Inc., 8 miles southeast of Stuttgart, Ark.

"We were told we could get in the air at 10 a.m. At 10:33 we got a call from the FAA to put the planes back on the ground. We have no idea what’s going on. This was supposed to have been cleared at the highest levels of the FAA. We were told – no, we were assured -- the commencement of planes flying was supposed to include applicators. We’ve got jobs in progress that need to be completed but they told us not to leave the airplanes running because it might be a while," says Hartz.

Apparently the yo-yoing of aerial applicators was a result of miscommunication between FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and their field offices. According to several agriculture pilots, they were told there was a misinterpretation of "what was meant by the skies opening up to air traffic."

It’s odd, says Hartz, "because the FAA field office in Little Rock assured us ag pilots would be allowed back in the air. But they were obviously mistaken. It doesn’t sound like we’ll be in the air anytime soon. This is causing quite an uproar within our industry."

Hartz says he knows there are some frustrated pilots whose first reaction to the news has been to say, "To hell with it. I’m behind and have a job to do and I’m going to keep on flying." He hopes such pilots quickly change their minds.

"The NAAA doesn’t take that position because that’s an unlawful act. And anyone thinking about staying in the air should keep in mind that any plane flying illegally is subject to being shot down."

There have been reports of several instances where general aviation aircraft have been escorted out of the sky at the behest of F-16’s. Hartz thinks common sense will prevail. "But if someone is flagrantly violating this order, there will likely be severe penalties. This is nothing to mess with. We’re calling other pilots and getting the word out. There’s a very good network of applicators and it doesn’t take long for the news to get out."

On the crop side, Hartz says calls to aerial applicators are coming in from cotton farmers wanting their fields defoliated. Cotton – much of it already in bad shape – will quickly get worse, "if we can’t spray defoliants. I have conveyed that to our executive director. It’s time for us to get back to work. We don’t want to appear unpatriotic, but enough is enough. I mean they’re playing football this weekend. We’re trying to get the Delta congressional delegation to do something."

The cotton crop

Recently, Arkansas farmers have shifted away from aerial application to ground rigs, says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. But this year the crop has gotten taller and more tangled than usual. Many farmers – even those who normally use ground rigs -- were planning to use aerial applicators because the cotton is so unruly.

With aerial applicators grounded, farmers will likely fall back on their ground rigs.

"But it’s a trade-off and one that we have to keep a close eye on. In south Arkansas, we can’t afford to lose any cotton and by driving a rig through, losses will definitely happen. Things are drying off now. I can’t think of many fields we wouldn’t be able to drive through. But even with fenders on, some cotton is going to be knocked off. If we have to go another few days without aerial applicators, it’ll get ugly. Farmers may just have to grimace, shut their eyes and just run the ground rigs," says Robertson.

Will McCarty, Mississippi Extension cotton specialist, agrees and says a similar situation is apparent on his side of the Mississippi River. There is one key difference, though: there’s still plenty of wet fields in Mississippi.

"The grounding occurred Tuesday. Monday was a good day and lots of aerial applicators did a lot of work. Then, over the last three days we’ve had some of the best weather to defoliate and we still can’t do it.

"After all the rain in the southern and mid-portion of Mississippi, the cotton has been beaten down and is matted. The ground is wet over much of the state and ground equipment hasn’t been an option. Not having aerial applicators in the sky is going to put us even more squarely behind the 8-ball in preparing the crop for harvest."

From the central Delta to Natchez, the ground should be dry enough in the next couple of days to get grounds rigs in, says McCarty. But the plants are so matted and wrapped up that ground rigs will damage the crop. And some of the cotton is so badly matted that rigs won’t be able to run. Some farmers will have little choice but to wait until aerial applicators start flying again, he says.

Another point of expediency is the tropical depression currently swirling around the Gulf of Mexico. Right now, it doesn’t appear that the state will stay dry for too much longer.

"We need to get the leaves off this cotton as fast as possible to allow sunlight and air penetration. The grounding of aircraft is definitely having a significant impact on our cotton."

Boll rot situation

South of the Arkansas River, boll rot is very bad, says Robertson.

"This morning, I spoke with a farmer from Desha County that said the boll rot was still progressing. I saw some of the worst boll rot in that county that I’ve ever seen. Last week, I looked at a field that had 1,200 pound yield potential but two-thirds of the bolls were rotted. It was locking and rotting as fast as it was opening."

Things have turned out dry since then and it seems to Robertson that some of the boll rot has stopped. But in speaking with farmers in southern Arkansas, "I keep hearing that rot is still moving up the plant. I was in Ashley County to put out a test. The samples I was checking were about 40 percent open. Three-quarters of the open bolls were rotted. I’ve seen other fields worse than that. The later fields will come through a bit better. But if it turns wet again, rot will kick up. We need it to stay dry with low humidity."

All the news isn’t bad. In some areas above the Arkansas River cotton is looking great. In Crittenden and Poinsett Counties, Robertson has heard of dryland yields as high as 800 pounds.

In Mississippi, McCarty says the main trouble areas are still south of Highway 82. From Highway 82 to Highway 6 damage is still bad, although not to the extent further south. North of Highway 6 cotton damage is scattered.

"Since Monday morning, the humidity has dropped, the sun has been shining and the wind has been blowing. Temperatures have dropped a little because humidity has come down. That’s helped the cotton. The cotton is fluffing and color should be helped," says McCarty.

However, restoring the crop to its original promise won’t happen. The current weather may fluff some bolls, but it won’t restore the sprouted seed to its original state, says McCarty.

"Seed value is shot. Seed in early-opened bolls has deteriorated to the point where much of it will be rejected and the rest will be discounted."

In terms of the boll weevil eradication, the grounding of planes could be significant, says McCarty.

"We can’t get ground rigs in without tearing up the wet soil and crops. The only thing that can be done right now is running mist trucks around the edges and in some places it’s too wet to do that. We’re losing money with the aerial applicators on the ground. If planes don’t start flying soon, I guarantee there will be areas we’ll have to spend money on next year to control weevils that we wouldn’t have if not for these terrorist acts."

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com