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Taking Flight: Crop Dusters Get Maryland Crops Soaring

(BERLIN, MARYLAND) Bob Bunting gets up with the birds. Actually, he gets up before the birds. He’s a crop duster and is at the airport planning his day’s flights before the first bird cheeps.

Crop dusting, or aerial application involves treating fields from a low-flying, slow-flying airplane. It is a vital part of agriculture on the Eastern Shore.

“We are able to deliver the things farmers need for their fields by aerial application quickly, efficiently, and economically. We spray different things depending on the time of year, the crop, and the problem the farmer is dealing with or preventing.” In Maryland, most crop dusters operate on the Eastern Shore. The terrain and types of crops grown elsewhere do not lend themselves to aerial application.

Depending on the situation, Bunting and his pilots at Bunting’s Dusting apply fungicide, insecticide, fertilizer, or seed. They concentrate on needs of soybean, grain, sweet corn, potato, and watermelon crops in spring and summer. From mid-August through the beginning of October, they are plant cover crops. Those are crops like wheat, ryegrass, and oats that are grown during the winter in fields that are otherwise bare. The cover crops provide nutrients to the soil while preventing erosion and water runoff. In spring, they are tilled into the soil before other crops are planted.

Each flight is carefully planned and executed with the precision of a military mission and use of hi-tech navigation and application equipment that ensures an accurate delivery.

“We have scouting reports made the day before of each area we plan to fly. That could be 300-400 acres in several locations, anywhere from Cape Charles to Cambridge. We use Google maps and GPS to map out where we will fly. A pilot flies a grid pattern over a location until the entire field is sprayed. He aims the spray using adjustable nozzles on the tanks. After the flight, the maps showing the pattern are downloaded and overlaid on the Google maps so that the farmer can see a picture of exactly what got sprayed.”

Agricultural aviation is one of the most tightly regulated fields in flying.  When you see a crop duster swooping over the fields, you are watching a highly trained and proficient professional at work. Pilots and ground crews must take extensive training by the Environmental Protection Agency in the storage, transport, mixing, loading, and application of the chemicals. Pilots must earn a special certification from the Federal Aviation Administration demonstrating their ability to safely fly low-level, tight turning, precision patterns and must recertify every few years. The FAA also has special requirements for the planes used in aerial application. In addition, pilots and ground crews must have a Maryland Pesticide License. They need a degree in agriculture or biology or several years of apprenticeship before they can take the exam.

For all of that planning, Mother Nature can ground the airplanes with just a puff of wind. “We monitor the weather constantly. We can fly only when the winds are very low. It the wind is over 8 miles an hour, the chemicals are too dissipated to reach the ground effectively or they drift out of the target area.” Those lovely early mornings when the mist rises in the dawn are no good for dusting. As the mist lifts, so will the chemicals and they will never reach the ground.  Dew, on the other hand, is welcome. “The moisture helps the spray to stick to the plants.” But rain is too much moisture. On rainy days, Buntings and his crews are grounded, and they get to sleep late.

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