2nd Place: 2012 WNAAA Scholarship Essay Contest

Stewards of the Sky, Stewards of the Land:
Environmental Awareness in Agricultural Aviation

In the world of agriculture, there are a lot of environmental issues to worry about during a pesticide application; numerous laws exist to keep the environment and public safe, such as the Clean Air Act, Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), and various state laws, with which agricultural stewards must comply. Pesticide applicators must be conscious of the numerous effects that application practices may have on the environment. Issues such as ground and surface water contamination through runoff and leaching, drifting of chemicals to off-target areas, and volatilization of chemicals are always in a good pilot’s mind. These environmental concerns are dealt with on a daily basis by aerial applicators. The ground and flight crews in agricultural aviation strive not only to protect the world’s food supply from pests, but also to protect our environment. This effort to ensure environmental safety should be made primarily before jobs are started, which helps the pilot concentrate on doing a satisfactory job once the plane has departed the runway. Environmental awareness in agricultural aviation is crucial, and good pilot records in safety will ensure the industry is around for years to come.

The most obvious concern for aerial applicators is making sure the contents of their hopper reach their intended location. In addition to having good stick and rudder skills, agricultural pilots must know when to turn the spray on and off, and they must be aware of the weather. Understanding the weather is one of the most crucial ways an applicator determines where the product will end up. High winds can take a swath a considerable distance from the target, and therefore wind speed must be taken into consideration before an application is started. When the wind is below acceptable speeds, knowing what is downwind, such as susceptible crop, body of water, or people is essential to knowing if an application can be done safely, as even a slight relatively light wind can sometimes carry product off target. The pilot must also be aware of the temperature and humidity, and the effects it has on certain pesticides, as some may become volatile under the right conditions.

Volatilization “occurs when a solid or liquid changes into a gas,” and its effects are increased in higher temperatures and low humidity (Ramsay 53).  When volatilized, pesticides form a vapor, and this vapor can hang in the air and drift to off-target sites. Often, this type of drift is not visible. Applicators must be sure to check the pesticide label for its volatility level, and only apply when conditions are less favorable to volatilization.  This includes knowing the current temperature and humidity, and also the forecasted temperatures, as volatilization may not occur immediately after the application. Apart from direct contamination of people or animals, our supply of water is probably the most important to keep away from pesticide application.

The safety of our water supply is clearly of utmost importance. While pesticides have rarely been an issue for ground and surface water, the potential for water contamination is there, if a careless application were to be made. The greatest risk of contamination is in runoff; when a pesticide is carried into a water source by being carried by an irrigation ditch or stream. Contamination of groundwater is another issue that can occur with a few pesticides. Pesticides that are not broken down easily can sometimes leach into the soil, given the right kind of soil (Ramsay 54). Applicators must, as always, check pesticide labels to see the permeability of a product before an application, and if a risk is determined to be present, the applicator should learn about the soil’s ability to leach before any attempts to apply a pesticide. These are environmental concerns that should be dealt with primarily on the ground, and before an applicator has a load in the hopper.

Thinking about these problems is critical enough for those who are applying on the ground at walking speeds, but keeping all these worries in mind at 160 mph, while avoiding power lines, trees and obstacles, takes considerable skill.  An even more acute awareness of how the products being applied will affect the environment is required by the pilot, who therefore must be extra vigilant before and during an application. Our nation’s aerial applicators are, of necessity, among the most environmentally aware, and must be so in order to keep the industry, and their own jobs, successful. ♣

Works Cited:
Ramsay, Carol A., Washington Pesticide Laws and Safety, Pullman, Washington, WSU 2003

Headshot of second-place 2012 WNAAA Scholarship recipientJase Eskildsen is the son of Chris and Rebecca Eskildsen. He is a fourth-generation pilot who works as a mixer/loader with his dad and grandpa at B&R Aerial Crop Care in Connell, Wash. Jase recently obtained his Commercial Pilot certificate and hopes to make a career out of agricultural aviation. He is majoring in Spanish and International affairs at Eastern Washington University.

2013 THEME: The Role Ag Aviation Has Played in Shaping My Life