Crop dusters speed planting South Louisiana’s rice

Doug Biessenberger banks his Air Tractor 502 as he seeds a rice field near Eunice. (Photo by Claudette Olivier)

Rice seed is loaded into Doug Biessenberger’s plane at the Eunice Municipal Airport on March 20. (Photo by Claudette Olivier)

By Claudette Olivier Claudette.Olivier@eunicetoday.com

A crop duster can hold about 3,000 pounds of rice in its hopper, and getting the 26,061 acres of rice planted in St. Landry Parish takes the help of pilots like Doug Biessenberger of Mowata Flying Service and Bradley Reed of Reed Aviation.
“I fly in a 15-mile radius from the base, generally,” Reed said. “I refill (the hopper) every eight minutes or every half hour, depending on the load. Liquids last longer.”
Reed’s family has been in the crop duster business since 1968, when his father Norman Reed first opened Reed Aviation, and the crop duster pilot has been dusting fields for 34 years himself, mainly in St. Landry and Acadia parishes.
Reed estimates that he makes 75 percent of his income for the year during the months of April, May and June.
“During those months, there is heavy, heavy flying activity,” he said. “These used to be some of the only months of the year crop duster pilots flew, but with the change in farming practices over the years, we now fly every month. The diversity of crops has changed from what it was back in the day.”
The ag pilot said changing farming practices have also effected the amount of rice he plants each year.
“It’s down a bit with farmers who are drilling to plant rice,” Reed said. “Planting rice is becoming less of our business than it used to be. At one time, I was planting about 18,000 acres. Now I probably plant less than half of that.”
“Less and less farmers are using airplanes for planting rice.”
Biessenberger got into the crop dusting industry after watching another local ag pilot at the helm of his aircraft.
“I have always had an interest in airplanes and flying,” Biessenberger said. “I used to watch Robbie Miller fly, and his flying skills really impressed me.”
Biessenberger is going into his 18th season as a crop duster pilot, and the amount of rice he plants around St. Landry, Acadia and Evangeline parishes each season depends on the weather. In the last few weeks, Biessenberger could be seen regularly buzzing through the skies over Eunice, often utilizing the runway at the Eunice Airport as a staging area. Biessenberger is able to quickly spin the plane into position for loading once on the runway.
“The growers do a lot of their own planting, but I take care of about 7,000 acres of rice,” he said. “I’ll pass over them at least twice but as many as seven times (fertilizing and treating after planting), as well as take care of about the same amount of soy beans each season. Spraying and fertilizing is the biggest part, but beans keep us pretty busy through the end of September.”
Reed also said he’ll buzz a rice field for treatment about seven times each season, with the average number of passes during the growing time being around four or five, and he’ll also treat soybeans this summer.
“Treating rice has lengthened the crop dusting season,” he said. “It evens things out from planting less acreage.”
“In the fall, we’ll also plant rice for crawfish and fertilize second crop rice.”
March marked the beginning of rice planting season, and crop dusters will continue to buzz mere feet above fields across the parish for the next few weeks, possibly into late May, planting one of Louisiana’s top crops. Rice acreage in Louisiana increased from 410,902 acres in 2013 to 449,362 acres in 2014, according to the Louisiana State University AgCenter, and the total value of rice production in Louisiana was $656.3 million last year. Last year, St. Landry Parish’s rice crop had a gross farm value of almost $30 million.
While both pilots simply enjoy flying, the finicky Louisiana weather is the uncontrollable variable that can keep them from their work-hobby.
“Weather effects everything we do, 100 percent,” Reed said. “You wait on the fog to fly, and then the wind will pick up.”
The weather can slow aerial work, Biessenberger added. “Fog and heavy rains wet our strips as well as may add too much water in the farmer’s fields. Wind can shut us down pretty quick — it can prevent us from hitting our target if it becomes too strong.”
With their years of experience in the field — and above the fields — the two pilots know that technological advances have made their jobs much easier, safer and productive than when the first crop was dusted from a hot air balloon in New Zealand in 1906.
“Technological advances have made things very efficient,” Reed said. “The advances allow pilots to cover more acres. We are getting ready to test a new style of sprayer. Efficiency is a big thing in crop dusting. We are heavy on testing equipment and safety training. Crop dusters have a good safety record.”
“We are always trying to get better with equipment and safety.”
While Reed started crop dusting before Global Positioning Systems were the norm in agriculture aircraft, Biessenberger entered the field after that particular technological advancement.
“I’m far from an old timer,” Biessenberger said. “I always had a GPS guidance system.”
While these important modern gadgets make their jobs a bit more breezy than it is in the cockpit, they weighed in on how important aerial application is to the agriculture industry.
“American agriculture could not exist without Ag aviation,” Reed said. “There is no way to cover that much ground in that amount of time.”
“Aerial application is also friendly to the crop and the soil.”
“A plane, because of its speed, can protect many acres in a short time when time is of importance such as an insect infestation,” Biessenberger added.
According to Federal Aviation Administration numbers for 2013, agriculture pilots in the United States spent a combined total of 1,013,954 hours in the air, up from 955,850 in 2012. Biessenberger and Reed operate just two of the 3,634 aerial application aircraft surveyed by the FAA in 2013, up from 3,606 in 2012.
The two pilots also commented on the small increase in aerial application aircraft numbers.
“We will always need pilots, but they seem to be quitting faster than new pilots come in to the industry,” Biessenberger said.
“I would say the demand for pilots is high,” Reed said. “There are not as many new pilots. It’s expensive and difficult to get a job in the industry and to gain experience. You have to work your way into the business and it’s a unique business. There is a demand for good, experienced pilots.”

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