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Wisconsin Crop Dusters Deal With Modern Technology

August 25, 2014
crop duster

The only part of Jim Kazmierczak's crop dusting business that fits one of the many stereotypes linked to his misunderstood profession is the cramped, one-seater Piper airplane with its wide wings and roaring engine that he pilots just a few feet over Wisconsin farm fields throughout the summer months.

"It was built for a smaller guy," joked the 6-foot-1 Kazmierczak of his 46-year-old Piper PA 25, the only plane that he uses for his Lodi-based business called Kaz's Flying Service.

Big or small, crop dusters need more than great piloting and multitasking skills to succeed — and even survive — in their dangerous profession, which the National Transportation Safety Board said needs to be safer after it scrutinized 78 agricultural aviation accidents last year. Nine of them were fatal, with 10 people killed, according to a NTSB report issued in May.

Crop dusters — or aerial applicators, which is their official name — also say they need thick skin to cope with what they call misinformation against their businesses. Environmentalists peg them as menaces to organic farmers, while drone manufacturers say they're dinosaurs facing extinction within the next few years, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

"Some people think they know a lot about what we do, but most people actually don't have any idea of what we do," said Kazmierczak, who applies products for crop protection, as well as fertilizer and seeds.

People often stop their cars to watch him and later ask him whether the chemicals he was spraying on a field is safe for humans to be around.

Kazmierczak, 58, can tell them he's spraying to protect crops like field and sweet corn and soybeans, as well as potatoes, onions, green beans and sweet peas. He protects ash trees from the emerald ash borer, sprays for gypsy moths and plants winter wheat seeds over fields of soybeans just before they defoliate, giving farmers a big jump on the start of their winter cover crops.

"I'd say 90 percent of those people just want to know what's going on, and they are cool with it after I explain it to them," Kazmierczak said.

He said many organic farms use crop dusters to apply organic fungicides and pesticides to protect their crops. They are included in the 71 million acres that are treated by crop dusters each year, according to a USDA Economic Research Service Report.

"Not every organic farm does it, but they can and they do" use crop dusters to treat their crops, Kazmierczak said.

JR Reabe, one of the owners of the state's largest crop duster companies, Waupun-based Reabe Flying Service, said some of the popular insecticides, fertilizers and other products he applies on farms are extremely similar to the organic products his company applies on organic farm crops.

Kazmierczak's little Piper and Reabe's planes, called Air Tractors, and helicopter are also outfitted with high-tech equipment that can increase the size of droplets and shorten the width of the swath to eliminate the potential of a chemical drift.

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