PAGE, N.D. – It’s early afternoon on a picture-postcard day in late May, a rarity in a wet, drizzly spring. Tim “Toby” McPherson is eager to climb into his spray plane and take advantage of the perfect conditions.
But McPherson, proprietor of Tall Towers Aviation in Page, isn’t one to pass up an opportunity to promote aerial agriculture application. Patiently and in detail, he answers questions about his industry.
“The United States enjoys a safe, affordable food supply,” he says. “Crop protection products play a huge role in that. And our industry is part of it, too. We’re another tool that farmers can use.”
Another Upper Midwest growing season is under way, and aerial ag applicators, also known as crop sprayers, are doing their part to help fledgling crops survive and thrive. That role is likely to be even bigger than usual this year; crop sprayers usually are busiest when wet fields hamper ground application of chemicals.
McPherson, 55, is a lifer in his industry. He’s seen many changes through the years and expects to see even more before he’s through.
When he began, he flew a 150-horsepower plane that carried 100 gallons. Today, he flies a 750-horsepower plane that carries up to 500 gallons. Modern planes also offer air conditioning, high-tech tools such as GPS and turbine engines that give a smoother ride.
“Before, at the end of the day, you were tired (from flying). Now, it’s just so much easier,” he says.
Technology also allows crop sprayers to be more efficient and precise, he says.
There’s a downside to modern ag aviation, however. Cell towers, wind farms and other obstacles are increasingly common. McPherson and other crop sprayers are concerned about someday sharing the sky with unmanned aerial vehicles, which, by all accounts, could play a big role in ag’s future.
“You can’t have a bad day in our profession,” McPherson says, stressing the constant need for safety.
McPherson grew up in nearby Arthur, the son of a truck driver. As a boy, he and his older brother, now a crop sprayer in Colorado, watched a neighbor spray crops.
“That’s what got me interested in this. I’ve wanted to do this since the second grade,” McPherson says.
He acquired his nickname as a boy. “Toby” is emblazoned near the cockpit of his crop spraying plane.
After high school, he worked for an aviation company for four years in Wahpeton, where he learned to fly and first sprayed crops.
In conversation, McPherson sometimes refers to himself as a “crop sprayer” or a “crop duster,” the latter a throwback term used in the industry’s early days. Today, “aerial applicator” generally is the preferred term.
In 1980, McPherson founded Tall Towers Aviation. “This is our 35th season,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like it, but it is.”
The company’s name comes from his old high school athletic conference, which took its name from two large TV towers in the area. Today, the company works with customers in a 20-mile radius of Page, much the same area as schools in the old athletic conference once served.
McPherson decided on Page, in part, because the crop sprayer who had served the area died in 1976. His wife’s strong ties to the Page area also contributed to the decision.
Page, a farm town of about 230, is in western Cass County.
Historically, aerial ag applicators have tended to be small, one-man operations. Ag aviation companies are getting bigger, reflecting the overall trend of bigger agricultural operations, and Tall Towers Aviation is bigger than most.
It has seven full-time employees and three part-timers. The workforce includes McPherson’s sons, Tucker, 25, and Tyler, 22, and his younger brother, Scott, who’s been with Tall Towers Aviation since the beginning.
The McPhersons farm raises corn and soybeans, too.
Besides aerial crop application, Tall Towers Aviation provides ground application for crops, sells seed and chemical and offers airplane maintenance.
Big ground-crop applicators became more common in the area in the late 1990s, reducing demand for the services of Tall Towers Aviation and other aerial crop spraying businesses. That led the Page business to begin offering ground application, too.
“It was another way of serving our customers,” McPherson says.
Demand for aerial crop application has risen since the late 1990s, however. Problems with soil compaction, which ground application can alleviate, has contributed to that. So has the need to apply moisture-activated chemicals at the right time; aerial application can help busy farmers apply their chemicals in a timely fashion.
Invariably, aerial ag applicators are busiest in wet growing seasons. North Dakota aerial crop applicators sprayed a record 5 million acres in 2011, when the spring was exceptionally wet.
McPherson, like other aerial ag applicators, charges farmers for the cost of the chemicals used and a per-acre fee to apply them.
The aerial ag application industry, like agriculture in general, could use more young blood.
“The average age (of pilots who spray crops) is 54. We’re trying to get younger guys in it,” McPherson says.
Ag aviation officials say young, would-be crop sprayers typically work for an established business, which eventually gives them a chance to fly themselves.
“Being a good crop duster is more than knowing the airplane. Flying the airplane is taken for granted,” McPherson says.
“You’ve got to know what you’re spraying. The wind and temperature, too,” he says. “You’ve got to be the agronomist. You’ve got to be the weatherman. You’ve got to be the farmer. I love the flying. I love it all.”
He’s optimistic about his industry’s future.
“Demand for our services is growing. The technology keeps getting better,” he says. “We’re going to be around a long, long while.”