New technology can solve the growing pesticide drift problem

BY TOM FRANTZEN

When it comes to farming, most people think of two seasons: planting and harvesting. Tucked between these is a short but equally important — and to many, a potentially hazardous season: crop spraying season.

During this time, small low-flying airplanes and helicopters can often be seen buzzing over corn and bean fields throughout Iowa applying insecticides and fungicides on farmers’ growing crops. Twenty years ago, it was a different story. But today, a large portion of Iowa’s corn and soybean crops are treated with these chemicals.  

At a rate of $15 to $25 dollars per acre, crop dusting, as the practice of spraying chemicals on crops is sometimes referred to, can be expensive. Farmers say it’s worth the cost to boost crop yields or improve corn stands come autumn that are easier to harvest. Both are real concerns for a farmer. But what happens beyond a farmer’s field?

The widespread airborne application of these chemicals inevitably leads to instances of pesticide drift, where chemicals cross property boundaries and inflict damage on neighboring crops or, in some instances, the neighbors themselves.

Pesticide drift can cause real conflict among neighbors in our state’s rural areas, and has the potential to turn our long-held idea of “Iowa nice” on its head. On the other hand, some shrug and argue that incidences of chemical misapplication are an inevitable part of living in Iowa, and more or less out of farmers’ control.

Does this conflict have to exist? Is litigation the only answer?

I believe a potential solution lies in technology. It’s time we rethink what’s cutting-edge and convenient in agriculture. Using airplanes and helicopters to spray chemicals was once innovative. It let farmers cover more acres more quickly, saving time and labor. But that approach is now obsolete – and the growing pesticide drift problem reveals one reason why.

Perhaps it’s time to turn to drones.

Yes, for some people that would be a hard pill to swallow, especially since, according to a report by the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation, 86% of Iowa’s airports support crop dusters, and those small airfields contribute about $400 million to the state’s bottom line. That’s a big chunk of money, but it could be argued health and safety is priceless.

And farming has always been about changing technologies. The steel-wheel threshing machine is just one example.

Those threshing machines ruled the harvest world until engineers designed combines; harvesting entered a new and forever altered state.

Drones could do the same for aerial-applied farm pesticides. That technology could address the problem of off-target spray drift, and the real issues of soil and human health.

Here’s what I believe are the benefits of using drones to apply pesticides:

Drones do not cross property boundaries as they fly low to the ground with relatively slow speeds. 

Drones offer unmatched potential accuracy.

Drones are very quiet and their work can be done at any available time. 

Drones do not have to fly from airports and do not have to make wide aerial turns in their application. 

Drone applications are not as subject to winds that often blow chemicals across property boundaries. 

These new technical developments in chemical applications have much to offer and I support this advancement. Airplane and helicopter chemical applicators are dinosaurs and they belong in museums.

Tom Frantzen is an organic farmer from New Hampton.

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