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 our potato and other crops, they think of a tractor, barn, combines, etc. But aircraft are also crucial for many of our agricultural operations as well, 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’ve 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 that a ground rig would encounter. 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 that is 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 percent of Idaho’s total farm cash output, and we export about 2 million pounds of milk per day. Large dairy companies like Chobani and Glanbia, Plc have opened plants in the state and Gem State Dairy Products announced earlier this year that they 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 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 wildlands fire has done their damage, we provide aerial seeding services, which restores the land’s natural habitat, prevents soil erosion and protects watersheds from runoff. This work is invaluable in managing wildland fires and protecting communities from the devastating damage that wildfires can have.
In addition, across our state, we have 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 where many of our towns are cut off from vital services like emergency medical care. Congress and our 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. It may not mean a lot on K Street but it’s important on Main Street.
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-sized 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.