“When I was a little boy, I’d write things in little notebooks about what I wanted to do when I grew up,” says Stokes. “My mother still has some little diaries with all these declarations about how I wanted to fly. Flying called to me and I listened.”

Good thing he did. Stokes, as friendly a chap as you’ll meet, now finds himself the owner/operator of two meticulous aerial application operations (one in Parkin and another in nearby Earle) in east Arkansas and is president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA).

The airstrip rat

Stokes’ fascination with all things aviation started out in Marked Tree and Marianna. When he was a little boy, Stokes lived with his grandparents. Right across the street from their home in Marked Tree, sat an old duster strip.

In those days, crop dusters were akin to gypsies – they would show up in July, spray cotton for a while and then fly to greener fields elsewhere. They were pioneers and Stokes learned his trade from them. Some kids are gym rats. Stokes was an airstrip rat.

“These guys were often WWII vets and they were flying old WWII planes. I was just intrigued by the whole scene, and I hung out at the airstrip all the time.”

Eventually, the pilots let Stokes sit in the planes and listen to their stories.

“I was very protective of the place and wanted their approval. I’d shine up their airplanes and pick up trash around the place. Then I moved to Marianna with my dad when I was in my early teens. One of his best friends happened to work at an airstrip. The strip was between our house and town. Many times, I’d be on my way to town and pass the airstrip, and something just pulled me over there. I did that all the way through school.”

Newly married, Stokes and his wife bought a small aerial operation in 1980 and have grown their business steadily since. He cut his teeth on cotton, but around Parkin and Earle, other crops hold sway.

“Traditionally, it’s been mostly rice and cotton up here. Now, though, the work we do on crops goes rice, soybeans, wheat, milo, corn and cotton. King Cotton is fading fast around here. But 15 miles east, cotton picks up again.”

Why GPS matters

Stokes has been a member of the NAAA since the late 1970s. He was voted in as president in January.

“The NAAA is instrumental in keeping safety at the forefront. That’s one reason I’m so enthusiastic about the organization. Both the EPA and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) are partners in our safety program. Both contribute to our program financially, and in some cases, with personnel.”

But while safety has improved over the years, “the best single thing” that has happened to aerial applicators (and, by extension, their farming clients) is GPS, says Stokes.

“It’s helped us make better decisions. There used to be pressures on us that we don’t have to worry about now. For instance, since we’ve got GPS, we don’t have to be concerned about a flagger leaving the field today and not standing in the same spot tomorrow. That’s taken care of with the push of a button or two.”

But things aren’t perfect. On one hand, GPS has made things easier for pilots. On the other, it requires more concentration and more drain on a pilot’s attention.

“You’ve got to fly and spray and keep an eye on the computer system at the same time.”

Stokes says some people see GPS as a two-edged sword – not only do you know where to go, but people also can find out where you’ve been. He doesn’t see it that way.

“GPS is a tool I’m happy to use. We had a case where someone accused us of flying over his house, buzzing him two or three times, and spraying his house. We were able to show that we were a quarter-mile north, moving away and sprayed nothing. Anyway, GPS proved this guy to be wrong. Fifteen years ago, it would have been his word against ours.”

GPS in conjunction with other technologies have also led to better flow control.

“We’re reading real ground speed through the GPS and that allows our spray control flow to be exact throughout the field. It used to be our equipment was an averaging technology. But this gives real-time data to the computer controls that allows a steady, exact spraying amount – upwind, downwind, crosswind, it doesn’t matter.”

A new thing Stokes is excited about – a dry-flow control – will arrive shortly.

“The industry has never had that before. We’ve gone a long way with spreader technology, but what’s coming out now is a leap forward.”

Playing the cartographer

Stokes provides maps for his clients. He points to his wife – who acts as office manager – and the sheets being rapidly spit from a printer.

“What she’s doing is printing out maps that we did ourselves. We take GPS units out and map farmers’ fields, come back in and download the information and that allows clients a visual feel for what we’re doing. Using this technology is one of the greatest things that have happened to our business. Everyone likes it.”

Stokes also color-codes the maps.

“It used to be that there were specific chemicals for specific crops – soybeans had soybean chemicals, cotton had cotton chemicals. Now, it’s more complicated. We’ve got conventional crops and Roundup Ready technologies and even more are coming. It’s become extremely important for us to know what a field is planted in.”

One way he does that is through color-coded maps. Stokes asks farmers to mark maps of their fields with the crops planted.

“Say we need to spray field 119. We can find it on the screen; click on it and up pops a latitude/longitude reading. I take that reading out to my plane, punch it into the GPS system, take off and go straight there.”

Tied in with GPS are the flow controllers and the logs generated by them. Stokes can take the logs and look for spikes – “which shows us we need to calibrate our system. Or maybe it’s taking a bit too long to turn on or off. The data will show us that and we can address it. GPS isn’t just making life easier, it’s making things more precise. We’re able to give farmers more value for our services.”

Stokes thinks we’re still a ways off from the Holy Grail of precision agriculture: true variable rate technology.

“Variable rate is still a real headache. There’s a day coming when variable rate will be awesome, and everyone will go with it. But I believe that’s a ways off. What we need to concentrate on right now is precision application.”

A daily trial by fire

Being an aerial applicator is like putting yourself through a potentially deadly obstacle course every day. Aerial applicators wake up knowing they’ll have to prove themselves all over again.

“There are no days off. If you screw up even a little, someone’s crop might be ruined or you might be killed. I think only people with a certain mindset become aerial applicators – you’ve got numerous missions to accomplish every day. I think that might help explain why so many fighter pilots came home and became crop dusters.”

A lot of the hard living and craziness that once characterized the duster industry has changed. It used to be fly-by-night and rags to riches for the hardcore vets.

“That’s changed, things are steadier. But the mindset those first ag pilots had – at least in some small, but important way – is still the same, I think. You’ve got to have a little cowboy in you. The equipment is now more dependable. The danger doesn’t come so much from mechanical troubles anymore, but there’s still a real element of peril. A pilot must learn to either relish it or deal with the pressure constructively. Do that and you’re in business.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com