Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Don't Call it a Crop Dusting

There's lots of crop dusting in the Central Valley and I always got a kick out of watching them fly over.

I especially liked watching them seed rice for migratory waterfowl along the I-80 causeway (which bridges the freshwater "sea" that develops between Sac and Davis every winter). I admired them even more when my amateur pilot friend explained how dangerous it was to fly that low over wet ground: the lightest touch between the wheels and water will stick fast and rip the plane right into the earth.

It's appropriate that Dave D., who shared some "hundred dollar hamburgers" with me (courtesy of our pilot friend) forwarded me the following story (ellipses and bold, my emphasis).

Ag pilot says Modesto turned him down for Earth Day booth
The Modesto Bee, April 17, 2010
"Don't call Dave Stein a crop-duster. The 48-year-old pilot is an "aerial applicator." That's the modern term for pilots like Stein who zoom over farmers' fields.

The name isn't the only thing that's changed about his business over the years. Stein thought renting a booth at Modesto's Earth Day celebration today would help educate the public about how aerial applicators, in his view, help the Earth. But the city denied his request, said Stein, on the grounds that he pollutes the air. ...

He says applying pesticides isn't as harmful to the environment as it once was. In the old days, chemicals were powders that drifted easily in the wind. Now, pesticides come in small grains the size of coarse pepper or pebbles. They fall directly onto crops and don't blow around, Stein said.He says aerial application is more eco-friendly than using a tractor: A plane uses 25 gallons of fuel to spray 150 acres, while a tractor burns four times as much fuel.

Ag pilots also help restore habitat by planting native grass seeds; dump water on dusty roads to control air pollution; and service organic crops with organic materials, Stein says. His plane plants rice in the Sacramento Valley, feeds honeybees with sugar water and applies sunscreen to keep fruit and nut crops from getting burned.

When people call to complain after they see Stein's plane in action, he makes it a point to visit them and explain what he's doing. "When I talk to people ... they're relieved," he said. "When I leave these people's yards, they're not mad and we never hear from them again." ..."

6 comments:

  1. What lovely things this "aerial applicator" does.
    Every time I see one I think, "AGH! Pesticides!"
    Now I can assume something great is coming from those planes.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Let's look at this a bit more closely:
    plane uses 25 gallons of fuel to spray 150 acres, while a tractor burns four times as much fuel.
    So he applies poisons more efficiently. And they're less toxic than they were back in the day (before Silent Spring, etc). Pardon me if I'm not excited.

    Ag pilots also help restore habitat by planting native grass seeds; dump water on dusty roads to control air pollution; and service organic crops with organic materials, Stein says.
    OK, great, but...

    His plane plants rice in the Sacramento Valley
    Where it shouldn't be grown in the first place, and would not be except for the subsidized water.

    feeds honeybees with sugar water
    so he provides the equivalent of McDonald's to the bee population; great.

    applies sunscreen to keep fruit and nut crops from getting burned.

    And what is IN those sunscreens? I don't know, and I doubt he does either. But people are eating them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. To be clear: in my last post, I'm criticizing the attempt to protray an element of high-input industrial agriculture as green. But I'm sure that most of the other booth-holders at the Modesto Earth Day were of a similar vein: making PR hay by presenting a less bad but still destructive option as green. That's how green plays in a fundamentally ungreen industry (same story in buildings, my field).

    So I do agree with your implicit point, which is that Dave is being unfairly picked on (relative to context) because of the perception of what he does.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Everyone loves a good greenwashing, don't they!

    One of the primary themes of this blog is to explore the subtleties (particularly in regard to sustainability) of what is an incredibly large and diverse industry. People tend to think of sustainable practices as black and white but, as I'm sure is also true in your industry, there's a huge gradient of practices that differ quantitatively in effectiveness and environmental impact. You have to balance these because the most "sustainable" also tend to be the least effective/most expensive.

    You comments on each point are fair and also point to the complex ways society interacts with agriculture:

    Spreading poison more efficiently REDUCES its impact on people and the environment(which of course is short consolation if you're just trying to prevent cosmetic blemishes on fruit).

    Likewise, I'd love to see the Central Valley revert to its former, extremely biodiverse wetland ecosystems, but with the population demands on water it will simple NEVER happen and the delta smelt is surely doomed. At least they found some money to plant seed for migratory waterfowl that pass through each year...

    I think your criticisms mostly point to the need for people to care enough about the environment to make REAL changes to their lifestyles. Consumer demand drives all of this. My point with this post is to remind people that things like planes and pesticides are tools and tools aren't imbued with moral qualities. They all have different pros and cons and we should pick them without being reflexively dogmatic (as the entire organic movement tends to be). Technology is easy, the real challenge is changing people's priorities.

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  5. does anyone in the agriculture business post schedules of when pesticide application is taking place, or when it might be advised to avoid certain areas? I cycle regularly in the central valley (Kings, Tulare, Fresno Counties) and found myself riding through an area with lots of "aerial application" going on. I could smell it, which meant I was getting exposed to something. I'm new to the area and a bit concerned about my exposure to not only pesiticides but O3 and PM2.5 pollution as well (since I spend a lot of time doing intense exercise outside).

    ReplyDelete
  6. I don't know, but I'd recommend starting with your local extension agents. I'd hope applicators would have to file flight/application plans ahead of time in a way that the public would have access to.. I'd be interested if you find a resource for this. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete

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