When a person is standing in rural Grundy County, they expect to see yellow and black flying objects now and then, namely bees.
But annually in July, the yellow and black flying object swooping over fields is much bigger and louder, and flies much faster. Sid Nelson, an aerial application pilot who owns Crop Solutions in Morris, can be found spraying crops for companies such as Grainco FS.
“I’ve been flying since 1978. I’ve been flying for agriculture application since 1986. I’ve flown about 14,000 hours,” Nelson said from the Morris Municipal Airport, where he was once the manager. “I did air shows for 18 years before becoming an aerial application pilot.”
Outside the north side hangars, his bright yellow and black Thrush aircraft with turbine motor is humming loudly behind him, equipped with 26 sprayer nozzles and loaded with water and fungicide. It’s ready to get to work. An acre of corn gets two gallons of water with 10 ounces of product added to it.
“We’re spraying fungicide right now, but we also spray insecticide and herbicide when needed,” Nelson said. “I don’t think we’ll have to spray for insects this year. You can tell if there is a bug problem from your windshield when you get done spraying, and they haven’t been bad this year.”
Jeff Brockman, a certified crop specialist with Grainco FS in Mazon, who is working with Nelson’s company to get between 15,000 and 20,000 acres sprayed in Grundy County this year, said aerial application is an important method for getting product into the field.
“I can’t tell you how much crop you knock down going in the field with a ground machine, but I know how much you knock down with an airplane,” he said, implying there is no loss to mature corn plants when application takes place from the sky.
Mazon farmer Kevin Halterman said aerial application makes sense for some farmers, especially those whose corn is too tall to get machinery over.
“They have GPS on the plane as well, so you know exactly where the fields were sprayed,” Halterman said. “With a high boy, it can be hit or miss and you won’t get 100 percent coverage.”
The fungicide that is being sprayed locally during July will help farmers fight leaf diseases currently in their fields, as well as work as a preventive measure against late-season diseases, Brockman said.
Brockman said that while the farmer has to spend more for aerial application per acre, the benefit is a higher yield on those fields.
Nelson said the GPS is similar to what is used in today’s tractors and it monitors exactly which parts of the field are being sprayed.
When he returns from a flight, he can print off a map of the field that shows the coverage area marked in red.
“You put the GPS coordinates on a stick that you put in the computer on the plane,” Nelson said. “Then I can send it to the farmer so he can see that everything was sprayed.”
In addition to the coordinates of the fields that need sprayed, the software alerts Nelson and other aerial applicators where organic farms are and where people are raising honey bees so they can avoid those areas or alert them to their presence.
“An organic farmer or someone with bees can go online and put their information in the system. Those areas are marked with solid red boxes,” Nelson said. “If I am spraying insecticide in an area, I can see there are bees and let the bee farmer know ahead of time that I will be in the area and where I will be so he can lock his bees up.”
Nelson said that aerial applicator pilots often are on drift watch to make sure product doesn’t reach surrounding farms.
One reason the drift doesn’t carry too far is because Nelson and other aerial applicator pilots spray from just a few feet above the crop, often giving pause to someone traveling down the road next to a field when they start their ascent at the end of the field.
The biggest danger to the pilots, according to Nelson, is electrical wires and structures that have been built and not marked that a pilot can’t see, often until it’s too late.
Nelson has run into two electrical lines — one in Illinois and one in Oklahoma — and said he was lucky it didn’t do too much damage to the plane.
“We try to fly in the safest manner possible, and try not to fly over houses, but sometimes we have to to spray a field,” Nelson said. “It looks dangerous, but it isn’t.”