If indeed Asian soybean rust has found a new continent to torment, the ground battle to save soybean crops will be intense. The fight won't be confined to terra firma, though: ag pilots will play a key role from the air. While few have yet to acknowledge this fact, the aerial applicator industry is busy weighing the possibilities.

“We've been talking about this, yes,” said George Tidwell, who runs a flying service near Lonoke, Ark. “Because time is of the essence, spraying for this rust is going to be done predominantly by air. I've been told by someone who's down in Brazil often that when they found the first case of rust, they immediately sprayed all the beans in a 300-mile radius. This isn't a disease to be messed with. If you wait until you see symptoms from the turnrow, you've made a big mistake.”

In dealing with the rust, “Ag aviation folks are going to be very important,” said Scott Schertz, incoming National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) president. Schertz, who runs a flying service in central Illinois, said, “There's a distinct possibility the rust will reach my state. Airplanes are the only way we'll be able to cover a wide area in a short time.”

Even knowing the power and reach of their planes, the possibility of a worst-case rust scenario frightens some ag pilots. “Has anyone even looked at how many crop dusters there are compared to soybean acres in the country?” asks one south Arkansas pilot. “I know acreage fluctuates, so it may be a pointless exercise. But if I was growing beans, I'd sure want to know a plane could get to my crop if need be.”

Tidwell admits trepidation, but isn't quite as worried about a lack of spraying equipment. “Everything hinges around the planning and infrastructure that's put in place. The universities and (state agriculture officials) have to put forward a great plan, period. There's no option there. To their credit, they know that.”

If such a plan is crafted, he said, “then the scouts and consultants will have to monitor soybeans very closely. We have got to spray just as the disease develops. If we do all those things, I think there will be enough planes and spraying equipment in the South to take care of things.”

Does Tidwell's optimism stretch above the Mason-Dixon line? “I don't know enough to say. I'm sure they're getting their ducks in a row, too.”

Schertz said he doesn't believe “everyone understands the necessity” of ag aviation with the fungal disease bearing down. “After a year of seeing what it can do, the Brazilians sure got excited about spraying properly and widely. Obviously, we need both ground rigs and airplanes.”

But while both are needed, planes are clearly the most important player on the treatment chessboard, he said.

“Planes are the main manner in how we're going to deal with this disease — but too few people are saying this. For grins, say there's enough ground equipment to spray every acre needing a fungicide. Well, what happens if it rains? Spraying will be behind, even with all this great ground equipment. That's just the truth. Ground rigs just won't be able to keep up if this rust spreads — ground rigs doing the job alone, or even mostly, just isn't possible.”

NAAA

With some 1,300 members, the NAAA, headquartered in Washington, D.C., represents aerial application businesses. For members it provides government, public and industry services and runs education programs.

“We do things to support and strengthen the aircraft spraying businesses,” said Allan Moore, NAAA executive director. “Our applicators are in 47 of 50 states. The states with most operators are Arkansas, Texas, and California. But there are concentrations in other Southern states and parts of the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.”

All applicators spoken to for this story say NAAA events enable and promote networking. And those contacts may prove valuable in dealing with soybean rust.

“The NAAA is a place to make connections for jobs,” said Schertz. “Many of the pilots I bring north, I've met in NAAA meetings.”

“When there's a busy bug run — or, in this potential case, rust run — a member in Iowa could call up his new friend in Arkansas and see if he can fly up and help out,” said Moore. “Even without the rust, this doesn't happen infrequently. I know a lot of our pilots migrate. They follow the bugs, the application needs.”

Flying over

Around his landing strip, Schertz deals primarily with corn and soybeans. The last several years, crops there have had large infestations of soybean aphids, and Schertz has brought in Delta-based planes to help.

“If they're solid professionals, I'm not scared to bring in other pilots and planes,” he said. “I've done that for a couple years running now. Ag planes are very capable and mobile. They bring a lot of spraying capacity into an area.”

Tidwell has been sending pilots north for the last couple of years “with some regularity. Now that the boll weevil has been eradicated, spraying cotton isn't as pressing. If there's a need up there, they'll call. If we can spare an airplane or two, we'll lease out to operators farther north.”

For how long?

“It can be a month-long trip. It just depends on how big the need is there. There's a solid chance the need may be astronomical in another few months. Who knows? But with the economy the way it is, I don't think many in our business are going to buy additional planes or equipment to bet on the come.”

Some predict aerial applicators will follow the disease around. “You know, migratory ag pilots aren't new,” said Tidwell. “For many years, we used to follow pests around in Oklahoma wheat. We'd start spraying green bugs and follow them on into Kansas. I suspect that will happen with this disease in some situations.”

Streamlining the process

For the pilots he brings north, Schertz always encourages keeping appropriate licenses current. That way they don't have to “spend too much time getting through the state licensing program when there's work to be done. Keeping the licenses up-to-date is a huge deal and will be even more important if this rust spreads and we need quick spraying. That's something that every state ag department or plant board needs to look at: ag pilot license streamlining and reciprocity between the state entities. Having a bunch of different rules and varied time periods to get the licenses is going to work against us.”

For example, when he works in Iowa, it can take a month to get a license. When someone from Texas comes to Illinois to work for him, licensing can take several weeks.

“States' rules are a mixed bag. Sometimes it can be pretty straightforward to go from state to state. For example, I can get an Indiana license on the strength of my Illinois license. Once I get several states away, though, they don't put as much weight on my Illinois credentials.”

Regardless, you need to pick your partners wisely and get licensing in the works early. When preparing to work with several Arkansas pilots last year, “We made sure the licenses were in order before the spraying season even started. That way, when I called asking for help they were able to fly up in short order and get started. If they'd had to wait a week for a license, it wouldn't have been worth their trip, and my farming customers would have damaged crops.”

Schertz said there isn't an umbrella agency that could oversee streamlining the licensing process.

“Ag airplanes are licensed with the federal government. But on top of that each state has requirements that pilots must be in compliance with. That's why we need quick action on pilot certification. As NAAA president, I hope to have some avenues to push this.”

Could spraying for Asian rust actually be a financial boost for aerial applicators?

“I hope it is,” said the south Arkansas pilot. “Farmers haven't been doing well, but neither have ag pilots. I wish no man ill. But, man, if (spraying for soybean rust) digs crop dusters out of a financial hole, I'm not going to be unhappy. There are a whole bunch of us on the edge of financial ruin.”

With the farm economy so depressed “on top of insurance and fuel prices, it's almost impossible to make a good go of it,” said Tidwell. “It's hard to charge the price you need to show a decent profit when your customer base is hurting too. We're just trying to tread water financially right now.”

If Asian rust does hit, Tidwell hopes the government provides financial assistance for soybean farmers. “If soybean prices stay where they are and this disease is bad enough, we could be put out of the soybean business in this country. We need some money allocated in case this blows up. It would behoove farming organizations to start pounding the podium about this. We have good people in the right positions to get this noticed.

“I mean, no one wants to admit this, but potentially we're looking at between one to five sprayings. That's a bunch. With soybean prices in the commode, farmers won't be able to handle that. We might as well get the help in place now.”

Schertz said one positive of the last few weeks is the rust threat has brought him closer to his farming customers. “Farmers in tune with what this rust may bring are contacting us trying to strengthen our relationship,” he said. “Several have approached me in the last few days asking, ‘How can we work with you to make this easier for both of us?’ That's a welcome development.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com