Buzz Kill

Crop dusters spray pesticides on homes, animals and people while the Arizona Department of Agriculture does little to stop them

Stiffer penalties could hurt crop dusters, the farmers say, and crop dusters agree.

"If they go to a higher point system, it will devastate us," says Pew, who has started Farm Plan, a type of credit card system for growers who can't immediately pay the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars it costs for each pesticide application. "It will put us out of business."

"The aerial applicators are a dying industry," says Rogers. "I wouldn't want this to be the final blow to push them out of business."

Ted Freeman mixes chemicals before they are loaded into the airplane flown (at right) by Dwight Willis of Sarita Aerial Contractors.
Erik Guzowski
Ted Freeman mixes chemicals before they are loaded into the airplane flown (at right) by Dwight Willis of Sarita Aerial Contractors.

Davis says the important thing to remember is that agricultural aviation is a field of professionals, not mavericks from the 1940s and 1950s.

"It's not the old crop duster who put a scarf on, and off he goes in an open cockpit," he says.

It's not unusual for today's pilots to have master's degrees and be community leaders. Pew, for example, is a bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Besides, pilots have too much invested in their half-million-dollar planes to be mavericks, Davis says.

But the image of professionalism is lost on many people who have been caught in a crop duster's spray. David Hart says he was sure the pilot flying back and forth over his house in Willcox nearly two years ago could see him swinging his arms. After several more passes, Hart had enough. Grabbing his gun, he aimed it at the crop duster, Tracey Williams of Ag-Air, using the scope to read the numbers on the plane. The pass was the pilot's last over Hart's property.

"I was hoping that it would at least move him away," says Hart. Tests for chemicals on his yard came back positive, and the department issued Williams a warning letter.

"I never saw the guy to begin with," says Williams, who insisted he was flying above the field on the other side of the road. "I don't like anyone who's going to point a gun at me. Why he was upset, or why he has rage, I don't know."

Kristi Herbig says she wouldn't resort to violence or intimidation to stop the planes that constantly fly over her horse farm in Eloy. She just wishes pilots could see the damage of one unfortunate flight.

Herbig is an early riser, tending to the nearly 20 championship quarter horses she breeds. One August morning in 1999, Herbig could barely get out of bed to vomit. Her husband, an asthmatic, was coughing. Dragging herself out the door, Herbig followed the trail of dead frogs, rodents and birds to the fish floating in her horses' water tank.

Remembering the plane she had heard flying over the house the night before, Herbig realized that her property had been sprayed. But her biggest concern was for her livelihood -- the horses, some of which were coughing and not eating. Several months later, she wondered if the dead foal from one of her mares was caused by pesticides.

Herbig filed a complaint with the Department of Agriculture two days after the incident, but it was closed without action when evidence indicated that no drift occurred. Several weeks later, the department reopened the case when delayed laboratory analysis showed high levels of pesticide residue on her property.

The pilot was fined $141.

Most disturbing was that Herbig lives 675 feet from the crop that was sprayed, and there are no homes nearby.

"They're snooping," she says of the crop duster. "If they have to fly that far out of their way to hit my house, they're doing something wrong."

The regulators are doing something wrong, too, when they fail to adequately penalize crop dusters, says Sebring, the woman whose mobile home, backyard canal and terminally ill son-in-law were hit with pesticide spray.

"I don't think anyone would deliberately do that, but he [the pilot] was negligent," she says. "If you live near farms, you have to put up with crop dusting. But I don't accept being sprayed on."

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