Residents of the tri-county area are no stranger to the small, often yellow, planes that buzz predictably across the fields and orchards in accordance to the growing season. These aircrafts are called “crop dusters,” but the job is professionally known as aerial application.
Crop dusters help growers in a variety of ways, from seeding the fields to spreading fertilizer and spraying herbicides or pesticides.
“Essentially, you're driving a tractor that just happens to have wings and go in the air,” said AJ Anderson, a local ag worker pursuing his commercial pilot’s license. “I mean the biggest manufacturer of airplanes in our industry is called air tractor for a reason.”
Anderson is a Chico State graduate who helps manage his family's business, Anderson’s Flying Service. Like many crop dusters, Anderson has grown up in the field, following in his father’s and grandfather's footsteps. Becoming qualified to work as an ag pilot is no easy task. In addition to the mandatory 250 flight time hours, crop dusters must also pass a series of tests and obtain the necessary government qualifications to spray pesticides.
“Ideally you want a guy that’s been working on the ground, mixing, loading, working with the chemicals, seed, and fertilizer,” said Anderson. “Because if you know how everything on the ground works, then it's just an easy natural transition for how everything is gonna work in a plane.”
Rice remains one of Yuba and Sutter counties' top crops, and over 90 percent of California’s rice seed is planted by air. Rice farming supplies local ag pilots with a good amount of work, but this opportunity usually falls within a very short timeframe.
“You've got a 45 to 65 day window to make it or break it, and for us that's rice season,” said Anderson. “Mid April through mid June is your critical work period for the entire year.”
The rest of the year Aderson’s business makes money by spraying melons, sunflowers, or other odd crops. In the fall, they help plant and fertilize wheat.
Exceptionally windy years can cause delays for crop dusters who carefully monitor where and what they spray.
“A big part of the job is getting whatever product you have on the right spot at the right time,” explained Anderson. “In the rice industry, there's a couple products that do need to be handled carefully so as to not get them in a drainage ditch.”
Thiobencarb is one such product that is monitored by the state via the Rice Pesticide Program. Monitoring is conducted during the peak discharge period for 10 weeks from late April through June to capture the thiobencarb use season.
“If this herbicide shows up in their tests, that either means we, the applicator, got it in a ditch somewhere, or it means the grower released water out of a field that got treated too early,” explained Anderson. “So there's a lot of regulations that we need to adhere to. … Is it an environmental issue to the general public? Generally no, but again that comes down to the operator and how much they are willing to not make it a problem, which is what I do.”
Monitoring the correct application of these chemicals is something Anderson and his family take seriously.
“We do try and make sure nobody’s around in the first place, and if they are, we make sure they are able to get out,” said Anderson. “People do get very nervous when they see us show up, but some people are like, ‘Oh, wow, cool’ and then they get sprayed on because they just don't know.”
Sarbdeep Atwal, a local farmer, is good friends with Anderson whom he often employs. There have been times when Anderson and his company have come to attend to Atwal’s crops, but had to shut down their operation due to people crowding the beaches of the adjacent Feather River. As fun as crop dusting can be to watch, Anderson suggests staying upwind if you want to enjoy the show, and definitely don't enter the field.
Residents should also take note of the risks they take to get good photos in orchards during the bloom season of early to mid spring.
“Bloom is probably the time where we’re spraying almonds the most,” said Anderson. “So people might be out there without knowing you just sprayed something that morning. Are you gonna get sick? Probably not, but it just depends on the product. There aren't too many super bad products out there anymore, but again, as a matter of principle, you need to be aware of what you're walking into. If you’re gonna go take pictures in an orchard when it's in bloom, you need to get permission from the grower. And that also goes for picking or eating anything out of them.”
While Anderson has found enjoyment in his career, regulations and water shortages have begun to threaten the future and livelihoods of many ag pilots and workers.
“The lack of water is just a chain reaction, and it's all kind of bad news,” said Anderson. “Colusa County, anything off of the Sacramento River, which comes out of Shasta, is at less than 10 percent water allocation. So if you have 100 acres, you're only farming 10 of those acres this year, or probably a little less to count for loss.”
Crop insurance can help ease the financial loss among growers and their operations, but a business like Anderson’s is entirely dependent on servicing those acres. Anderson said this equally applies to parts companies that usually service tractors that are now sitting idle, and chemical dealers who are now sitting on expiring inventory.
“So the downward steam effect of this isn't just, ‘Hey, we aren't able to grow rice or anything else,’ but it's all the downhill effects that come with that, as well as not being able to meet markets for all these commodities that we’re producing,” added Anderson.
Anderson explained that the commodities coming out of California are typically premium products. As the market goes unfulfilled, consumers will turn elsewhere to secure their needs which leaves California producers struggling to re-secure demand.
“We have been in a drought, but a lot of it has to do with lack of groundwater recharge,” said Anderson. “In the winter time, water should be running into the ground, not down the river into the ocean, if possible. Or just saving anything that we can up in Shasta and Oroville and build more off-river storage like Sites (Reservoir) which just recently got approved. We would not be in this boat if Sites Reservoir had gotten approval much sooner. It definitely wouldn't be just a 10 percent allocation in that area if we had Sites Reservoir this year.”