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.
They are also fully aware of the rules regarding flying near an organic farm. "There are a number of organic farms I work around. You have to be very careful," said Reabe, who is among his company's eight pilots.
They are busy these days in areas like central Wisconsin, where they regularly apply products on potatoes and other canning vegetables. The company works directly with farmers and has expanded its areas of expertise to include Christmas trees and cranberries, Reabe said.
Kazmierczak, who flies out of the Sauk Prairie Airport, works mainly with agricultural cooperatives that call him every day with a list of farms that need products applied. The farmers pay the co-ops for the service, which goes for anywhere from $15 to $20 per acre, Kazmierczak said.
The average crop duster's annual salary is around $82,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It's not uncommon for Kazmierczak to fly to Monroe and then head to Watertown and Sheboygan before flying back toward Baraboo for a day's work. He figures he sprays about 1,000 acres a day, usually about 15 feet over the crop canopy while traveling 100 mph, all the while operating the dispensing equipment and adjusting the swath.
Though he said he never worries about his safety, his brother, Bob, was killed in 2008 when he crashed his Piper while spraying a wheat field near New Lisbon. It was one of 81 fatal crashes involving crop dusters from 2001 through 2010, according to the NTSB report.
The NTSB said crop dusters are faced with unique hazards, challenges and constraints that can't be completely eliminated, heightening the need for focus on pilot skills to manage the aircraft, fatigue and risk to lessen the chance of an accident.
Reabe said he's taking that report seriously and grounds his pilots temporarily if he sees they are working too hard. While pilots' flying skills never diminish, their ability to maintain their concentration can disappear when they are fatigued, he said. That creates more danger, especially as more obstacles like wind turbines and cell towers pop up in and around farm fields.
Kazmierczak and Reabe, as well as Andrew Moore, the executive director of the National Agriculture Aviation Association, dismissed talk that drones will soon replace crop dusters.
A report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International last year predicted an economic impact of $13.6 billion in the first three years after the FAA adopts new rules allowing the commercial use of drones. Precision agriculture — including applications onto crops — comprises approximately 90 percent of the known potential markets for the drones, the report said.
Moore lauded the drone industry for its outstanding promotional and marketing approaches and then said its theories have no chance of becoming reality.
The report said precision aerial applications by drones on a specific sick plant in a field will reduce the amount of chemicals used and that will reduce environmental impacts. But crop dusters do much more than treat sick plants, Moore said. No drones that are in use today or are on the drawing board for the near future have close to the holding capacity of a plane or helicopter or the ability to stay aloft as long, he added.
Although drone helicopters are used in Japan and some believe it's only time before they become the norm in the United States, Reabe said drone helicopters hover over crops and its rotors stir up a cloud of chemical droplets much like the small sandstorms that conventional helicopters whip up. That will create problems with chemical, or pesticide, drift that crop dusters put much of their focus on limiting because it has the potential to wipe out an entire organic crop, Reabe added.
"That might be OK in Japan, but I doubt it will go over well here in the United States," he said.