Tractors, combines, harvesters: they're all machines that play an important role in American farming. But the list wouldn't be complete without airplanes. Most medium and large-scale farmers in the United States rely on the specially adapted crop duster aircraft for so called aerial applications. Flying low to the ground, crop dusters typically spray fields with chemicals to help farmers control fungus, weeds and insects. But on Maryland's Eastern Shore, crop duster pilots are carrying a very different payload and assuming a very different role.
The water of the Chesapeake Bay glints in the distance as Wayne Wright banks his yellow plane over a cornfield. He sweeps along the rows, releasing seeds in his wake. "This way you don't have to disturb the soil or anything; you just drop the seed in there," he explains.
Wright has been crop dusting on Maryland's eastern shore for more than four decades. Now, he is part of a state-funded program to help protect the Chesapeake Bay by dropping rye, barley or wheat seeds onto farmers' fields.
According to Doug Scott, with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, "These cereal grains have a thirst for nitrogen, and that's the primary benefit." These cover crops absorb nitrogen, which would otherwise leach into the ground water and eventually the Bay. In addition, having the ground cover during the winter, when the fields would usually lie fallow, prevents erosion.
Crop dusters, Scott says, can get the seeds in early, and when the soil is too wet for tractors. "We really can't count on the weather. In an extremely wet fall, they can go out there and apply the seed aerially before the harvest."
Today, Wayne Wright is 'flying rye' onto Gary Miller's fields, releasing the seeds between rows of corn almost ready to be harvested. As he watches the operation, Miller explains, "When the corn gets big, he flies over and puts out two and a half bushels of rye to the acre. And it lays under the canopy, If it gets enough rain, then it will sprout and it comes up and takes a lot of nutrients, and it gives cover to protect the ground from erosion all winter."
Like much in the agricultural industry, the technology of crop dusting has changed dramatically. Gone are the days when pilots relied on flagmen standing in the fields to mark paths for dusting. Wayne Wright's single-seat plane, specially designed for the job with low wings and a high cockpit for better visibility, is equipped with computers and satellite receivers for precise positioning and output.
"I have one GPS satellite with a heads-up display, and through the windshield I can see where the next pass is," the pilot says, "and the other GPS has a moving map. It's mapping everything I do, and it's in color, so if you miss a strip you can come back and clean up where you missed. It also gives you the number of acres and what rate you're doing it at." Wright says it's almost like playing a life-size video game.
Fellow crop duster, Eric Paniere says there are fewer concerns, too, when dropping seeds instead of pesticides. "You can drop the seed when there is wind blowing. We also have less concern about areas next to it because cover crop seeds do not drift; they fall right to the ground." And, he says, the pilots don't have to worry as much about hitting power lines. "It's easier flying, because we're able to fly a little higher; we're a little more relaxed, we're above the wires usually." However, he adds, the pilots must still be very precise.
Eric Paniere and Wayne Wright will be seeding in the skies over Kent County through early November.