Buzz Kill

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"We'll never be able to get away from drift. It's going to be there," says Pew, the pilot whose pesticide drift killed neighbors' fish in Florence and fish in an SRP canal in Chandler.

Nonetheless, the industry has made changes to minimize drift, he says. Booms on planes have been shortened for a more narrow line of spray that's easier to control. Nozzles are larger, creating large droplets that hit their target better than a fine mist. And flaggers who used to stand in the field, marking off rows, have been replaced with cockpit satellite positioning systems, which outline the pilot's route.

"We're not renegades out there running around," says Pew, a Mesa native who started his crop-dusting business in Coolidge nearly two decades ago. "The cowboys are gone. This is a highly sophisticated, expensive business."

Pilots routinely postpone applications when the winds aren't right, Pew says, and they will turn down jobs if nearby homes or other obstacles make spraying too tricky.

Arizona has buffer zones that restrict pesticide applications within one-fourth mile of schools and day-care centers. In designated urban areas next to farmland, pilots must notify the state 24 hours before spraying.

But the state's crop-dusting industry is shrinking, putting pressure on crop dusters to take jobs if they can.

Several decades ago, there were 60 crop-dusting companies in Arizona. Today there are 17. Farmland is shrinking, and what's left is farmed with new pesticides that require fewer applications. The widespread use of bt cotton, genetically engineered to produce a toxin that kills the dreaded pink bollworm, has reduced the need for pesticides on Arizona's largest cash crop.

On the perimeters of Phoenix, farmers are more likely to use ground rigs than an airplane to apply pesticide, sparing the farmer headaches when neighbors complain about a plane spraying nearby.

"Our family made a commitment to do everything by ground," says Kevin Rogers, a fourth-generation farmer on land in Mesa, Scottsdale and Laveen. "It makes us better neighbors because we're so close to town."

With fewer pesticide-spraying companies competing for less business, pilots admit the combination can lead to risk-taking. Jobs that aerial applicators might have rejected as too close to a home or a fish pond are flown to keep their business going.

"If you really don't want to do it, you can say no, and I have," says Joel Cyr, a pilot who operates Cyr Aviation Inc. "But can I afford to say no on this case?" That's always the question, he says.

Even as pesticide use drops, farmers don't want to lose the option of aerial spraying.

While the use of many chemical compounds has dropped dramatically, the application of others, including Methamidophos (used on cotton, potatoes and tomatoes) and Imidacloprid (used on vegetables, fruits and other crops), has remained steady.

Davis of the Arizona Agricultural Aviation Association says the industry is just becoming more specialized. Aerial applicators will always be relied upon for certain types of crops in rural Arizona, which is the nation's top producer of iceberg and romaine lettuce during the winter months.

Rogers, the Valley farmer, says even though his pesticide use has dropped as much as 80 percent, he and other growers fear that bugs will become resistant to bt cotton and new pesticides. They don't want to lose the option of spraying by air.

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."

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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley