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Crop Dusters Seeding The Future Of Farming

Taking off from Bridgewater Air Park, Matt Crabbe takes his canary and cobalt striped AT5T toward the rolling fields of rural Virginia to create a private sky of endless clouds. Every day, Crabbe and his family fly across Virginia and North Carolina to rain everything from crop protection to fire suppression on the world beneath their wings, but there’s more to the work than beautiful views and cinching adrenaline from cruising at low altitude.

Crabbe Aviation’s arsenal includes three fixed-wing aircraft that can complete the work of spreading fungicide and crop cover better than ground rings by lowly gliding over farm rows. The company’s helicopter is deployed for forestry and marsh grass work. The benefits of aerial application rather than ground rings are in precision and quality but most of all speed, according to Crabbe.

“Where we shine is we don’t knock down crop. We do it quicker, faster than ground rings do; without soil compaction, without damaging any crops,” he said.

Third-generation farmer Lloyd McPherson has tended to the crops at Christian’s Creek Holsteins in Stuarts Draft for over 30 years. McPherson began using aerial application of fungicide on his corn and soybeans three years ago and said he’s seen a notable decrease in northern corn leaf spot and gray leaf spot, two common fungal diseases.

“The last two years, it’s been great. We did eight-plus bushels on the corn and on the soybeans. The other day we were doing soybeans and we saw a five-bushel increase,” McPherson said of the notable volume increase since using crop dusting. “The plant stays healthier, the stems stand just a little bit better.”

Inside the aircraft, Crabbe depends on three GPS systems to ensure he’s right and high in the sky. He said as farmers are progressing with modern equipment to expand work, the aerial field is also accelerating.

“Crop dusting has been around over 100 years, and it’s been performed in this state many years. … We’ve done a lot of testing with these things and everything we’ve tested, the aircraft gets more product to the plant,” Crabbe said. “We need to implement these different practices because they’re better for the future of our land.”

Apart from protecting crops from immediately threatening parasites, aerial applications can also benefit future fields for years to come by extending farmers’ ability to plant cover crop, which build soil health by reducing weeds and controlling erosion. Without the assistance of aviation, growers must wait until their crop is harvested before planting cover crop. Houff said waiting can delay the growth for up to two months, but timing is everything as pilots must be sure there is adequate moisture in the air before raining seeds.

While aviation jobs can be so much fun, there is a lot of hard work that is involved. Crabbe said aviation work may look like fun and games, but pilots must get a license and complete hours of testing as governed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We are conscientious of our environment and what we do. We have to do recertification training every year, multiple training sessions for us, and we’re professionals,” Crabbe said. “This is a job. … It costs a lot to do what we do, so we’re very conscientious of what we do and we enjoy it.”