Facing mounting fuel bills, aerial applicators are being forced to add a fuel surcharge to farmer bills.
“It seems aerial applicators are always under the gun about something,” says Dennis Gardisser, Extension agricultural engineer with the University of Arkansas. “Now it's fuel costs that are skyrocketing.
“Even with tax breaks they get for farm use, for Jet A — which is what most run — they're paying over $3.50 per gallon. (On April 1), it was $3.70. Last year, we were paying $2 — the fuel price has almost doubled.”
Mark Hartz, co-owner of Grand Prairie Dusters in central Arkansas, says fuel prices “are hurting the industry. Last year, we were paying around $2 to $2.30 per gallon. A year before that, the price was $1.30. Five years ago, a gallon cost 80 cents. Current prices are just killing the bottom line.
“Back when things weren't as tight, fuel expenses would be between 8 to 10 percent of our gross revenues.
“Right now, all the (aerial applicators) I talk to say fuel is costing about 25 percent of their gross.”
To stay viable, Gardisser says every operation he's familiar with has been forced to use some sort of fuel surcharge. “Some are doing it by the acre, others are doing it by (Hobbs meter — a means of keeping actual flying time).”
Hartz has chosen to go the metering route. “By doing that, we're only passing about half of the extra fuel charge to the farmer. We're eating the other half.
“There isn't one formula that will work across the entire industry. There are too many variations — airplane engine sizes, how much fuel they burn and other things.
“For us, we're keeping flying time on the jobs we do. And only hours in the air are counted. The more time we spend over a field, the more the surcharge. That was the fairest way we found.”
In treating ample wheat in the state, Hartz says, “in some cases, our productivity is at 17,000 to 20,000 pounds per hour — and that's where you make money. When you get down to 10,000 pounds per hour, it'll bleed you dry.
“If you're able to work off a farmer's strip, or his fields are close, he won't pay as big a surcharge as those that don't have a strip and you have to fly 10 miles to get to his field.”
Hartz says nothing is likely to help the situation until “the world fuel price drops. And looking at everything involved, the price appears totally inflated.”
“The thing is, it isn't just us being affected. Fertilizer prices are jumping, food prices, all the farmers' inputs are rising. Fortunately, the crop prices will somewhat support these higher expenses. But what happens when the crop price bubble bursts and fuel prices don't? Everyone knows that's a real possibility.”
A national aerial applicator licensing test is still being developed. It is hoped the test will help applicators move more easily across state lines to work.
“The idea is if an applicator passes the national exam, he can work any state after paying fees,” says Gardisser. “He wouldn't have to go through a testing procedure in every state. There would be a national, professional standard.
“The beta copies on that test are already out. There's not a deadline for the final version. They'll try to implement it as quickly as possible. I look for it to be a year before it's fully implemented.”
With shrinking aerial applicators rolls and potentially devastating diseases like soybean rust looming, the ability of the pilots to work outside their states is very important.
“We've been working with the EPA (on streamlining regulations),” says Andrew Moore, president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association. “A group of aerial applicators from around the country have (assisted) professional test-makers to develop an exam that, if passed, would grant an aerial applicator license. I believe that test is completed and a study guide is now being prepared.”
It's up to the individual states to accept, or reject, the test. “Each state has an individual pesticide enforcement office. With one exam and everyone tested the same way, it'll increase the chances of reciprocity for state licenses — for example, Arkansas might accept an (aerial applicator) license from California.”
Hartz says the national test will undoubtedly help applicators' movement, but states will always play a role. “Every region has specific issues that pilots will need to be educated on. One test won't ever fit all.
“There's a broad base of knowledge in the industry that applies whether you're in Arkansas or Arizona. That would include spraying dynamics and things like that. That's where the national test would do a great service, would get you well on the way to being certified outside your home state. When you head to another state, you'd have a smaller test dealing with that state's specific spraying issues.”
The test is needed “because the way corn and soybeans spraying in the Midwest is going, (aerial applicator) ranks have been tremendously depleted. It is imperative that our planes are able to move from one region to another as the need arises.”