Who'd have ever thought crop dusters and fertilizer/chemical dealers would need to concern themselves with terrorism?

For years, the general public, driving the highways of farm country, has been fascinated by spray planes whooshing low over crops, zooming up at the end of the field, making a sharp turn, and zooming back down again. Despite the devil-may-care, seat-of-the-pants image that adhered to the business for such a long time, modern ag aviators are extremely skilled pilots, handling some very expensive equipment, utilizing sophisticated technology to make very precise applications of very expensive materials to fields that contain a lot of potential dollars for their farmer customers.

(Interestingly, despite years of PR efforts by the ag aviation industry, and even though no “dust” materials have been used on crops in many a moon, the mass media and the general public still insist on calling them crop dusters rather than aerial applicators. Habits die hard.)

Now, instead of fascination at their aerial maneuvers, will the public, thanks to all the recent extensive publicity, be wondering if the spray plane they see zooming over the crops is a potential dispenser of biological warfare materials?

One thing's for sure: The workaday life of the aerial applicator is going to be a lot more complicated, with more regulation and more precautionary measures. It's likely, too, that the planes will be subject to sudden grounding when there are suspicions of terrorist activity, as they have been over the last couple of weeks — all of which can have a negative impact on ag aviators' revenues and on farmers' crop management.

Experts in the art of biological warfare say ag planes, as normally configured for crop applications, are not much suited to dispersal of death-dealing sprays such as anthrax and diphtheria or nerve gases, and that the handling requirements for such an operation would require specialized equipment and extreme care. And piloting a fully loaded ag plane also requires a lot of training and experience.

But the government apparently is considering worst-case scenarios, opting to err on the side of caution. Under consideration are restrictions on the export of aerosol sprayers and certain aircraft spray equipment that might be used in biological warfare.

In at least one state, Florida, regulations are being formulated to require all ag pilots to notify state agriculture officials of every flight, including the aircraft ID, the pesticide or other material being carried, and the exact area where the spraying will take place — information that will also be provided to the Federal Aviation Administration, “so we'll know who is in the air, what airplane they're in, and what chemical they're using.” It's not unlikely similar rules will be applied in other states.

Meanwhile, ag applicators are taking steps of their own to insure that aircraft can't be used by unauthorized persons. Some are blocking planes at night with trucks or other large equipment, taking batteries out of the planes, binding the props with locked cables.

The FBI has asked aerial applicators and fertilizer dealers nationwide to report any suspicious activity related to purchases or transportation of dangerous chemicals or fertilizer materials such as ammonium nitrate or urea that might be used in bomb-making. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has launched a campaign to enlist trucking companies, railroads, and other transporters to do likewise.

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, The Fertilizer Institute, the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials, and the Agricultural Retailers Association have conducted a “Be Aware for America” program, asking fertilizer dealers to keep their products from falling into the wrong hands.

“Protect your product by making your own place of business secure for storage and distribution of fertilizer products,” the organizations advise. “Be aware of how much product you have on hand.”

Above all, they caution: “Know your customers. Use this knowledge to protect against the criminal misuse of fertilizer and agricultural chemicals.”