In Idaho, potatoes have long been the staple crop of our agricultural sector and economy. We are responsible for about 30 percent of the country’s total potato production. That production goes a long way in feeding the rest of the country, as potatoes are the leading vegetable crop and the second-most consumed food in the United States.
The value of aviation for the potato crop is well understood throughout the state. When most people think of the tools used to farm potatoes and other crops, they think of a tractor, barn, combines, etc. But aircraft are also crucial for many of our agricultural operations, providing speed and efficiency. There simply is not a better way to cover thousands of acres of cropland than through aerial application. These applications prevent pests and diseases that could seriously alter our food supply. For example, about six years ago, there was an outbreak of potato psyllid, which is a bug that spreads bacteria in the crop. This bacterium ruins the taste of cooked potatoes, often making them unsellable on the market. Without the use of general aviation to prevent the spread of these psyllids, our potato farmers and agricultural retailers would have suffered enormous losses.
The value of aviation becomes even more apparent in some of our states’ uneven terrains, like the Palouse. With 4,000 square miles of rolling hills and unconnected valleys, it is virtually impossible to protect these lands with ground equipment due to some of the steep inclines. General aviation and our network of airports are the only plausible way to cover the vast wheat lands that are situated on the terrain of the region, which stretches from Central Idaho to southeastern Washington. Due to the value of general aviation aircraft, the Palouse is the world’s leader in production of white winter wheat.
General aviation is also important for the growing dairy industry in Idaho. Our aircraft protects the alfalfa and corn eaten by the herds of cattle that produce our dairy and meat products. These products support industries in the state and food supply across the world – dairy accounts for 33% of Idaho’s total farm cash output, and we export about 2 million pounds of milk per day. Large dairy companies such as Chobani and Glanbia have opened plants in the state, and Gem State Dairy Products announced earlier this year that it will be building a new milk processing plant in Twin Falls.
Agriculture aviation in Idaho is also unique in that we are contracted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to perform environmental protection missions during wildland fires. Fire season in Idaho has become more extreme over the years due to the growth of non-native species like cheatgrass, which burn faster and more easily. Every spring, our aircraft will apply herbicide to mitigate these invasive species, and in the fall, after wildfires have done their damage, we provide aerial seeding services, which restore the land’s natural habitat, prevent soil erosion and protect watersheds from runoff. This work is invaluable in managing wildland fires and protecting communities from the devastating damage that fires can have.
Our state also has a network of 128 public-use airports. While they may not get the attention they deserve, general aviation airports are lifelines for rural communities, particularly in Idaho. Congress and the president have been talking a lot about the importance of infrastructure, roads, airports and bridges, but we also can’t forget about our network of small aircraft and airports.
As our nation’s leaders are making important decisions that dictate infrastructure spending and resources, it’s important to remind them of the broad impacts that our smaller airports and aircraft have on their communities.
George Parker is the owner of Crop Jet Aviation and a past president of the Idaho Agricultural Aviation Association.