Search This Site
News :: Despite many challenges, Noes love mid-summer life as crop dusters
· 9:46am August 5th, 2014
Mark Noe looked out from his airport office a few weeks ago, seeing and hearing from the darkening western sky a crop duster as its pilot hurried to land at the Vinton runway before the approaching storm could threaten him or his plane.
Noe rushed outside to help the pilot after he landed.
“We put 300 gallons of water in his hopper, and helped tie down his plane,” Noe recalled.
Although that pilot is technically a competitor, working for another aerial agricultural application business, Noe said that those who use airplanes to cover crops with fungicides, pesticides or cover crop seeds are comrades in an unpredictable, challenging vocation.
For most of the year, aviation is merely a hobby for Mark and Kimberly Noe. But from mid-July to the beginning of September, it’s a full-time, 80-hour per week vocation for the couple, which runs the only crop dusting service based at the Vinton airport.
Mark and Kimberly – along with their daughter, Hannah; their mechanic, Mike Zenisek; two other pilots and Mark’s brother, Ryan – all work from early morning until late at night. Mark and the two pilots fly to fields throughout eastern Iowa, relying on GPS directions carefully prepared by Kimberly. They can cover about 4,500 acres per day.
Hannah, a 2014 Vinton-Shellsburg graduate, helps re-fuel planes and runs a variety of errands.
Mark’s pilots are a father and son team, Valter and Shane Ohman. The pair currently works out of Oklahoma throughout most of the year, but Valter got his start in aviation flying planes and gliders in his native Finland.
Valter said that as a young man, his inspiration to fly was from an old Korean War movie, although he can’t remember the name of the film.
Kimberly said that Valter was a godsend. He had been flying for other companies, but offered Mark an opportunity that would benefit them both.
“He told me that he would help me get started, if I would help his son, Shane, get started, as well,” said Mark.
As a Certified FFA Airman, Valter’s partnership with Mark helped him with many of the bureaucratic requirements of starting such and enterprise.
They began the partnership in 2011, after Mark and Shane completed the intensive, two-week Eagle Vistas flight school for aerial agricultural applications. While the planes are commonly called “crop dusters,” most applications involve liquids.
All three of the Noes love the crop dusting business. Mark works full time at General Mills; Kimberly at Martin Eye Clinic. Hannah is preparing for college and working part-time at Fareway.
“It’s a lot of long days and we are very tired when it’s done,” says Kimberly. But, she adds, the family looks forward to the crop dusting season each year.
Starting a new crop dusting business can be a daunting task. Before a pilot can begin, he has to have certification from the FAA. But, Mark explains, the pilot must have his plane before applying for that certification.
And each growing season is different because of annual changes in the weather.
And specific weather incidents can significantly impact and interfere with a crop duster’s schedule.
“Our first day was going to be July 11, 2011,” recalls Mark.
Local residents remember that date clearly as the day of the 130-mph winds that damaged many homes and also wreaked havoc at the airport.
Mark’s crop dusting plane – which had been tied down outside with metal cables – was blown into one of the hangars.
The Noes arranged to lease a plane while Mark’s was under repair. The wind also caused crop damage, which affected business in two ways. First, all work was delayed for a week as crop experts assessed the damage.
But later, the storm created more demand, as farmers sought help for crops distressed by the wind damage, and the downed corn made ground application more difficult.
The challenges of that first season continued for Noe Aviation; on Aug. 1, 2011, Valter experienced a mechanical problem and had to make a force landing. He and his plane survived with no significant damage. Airport Commission members credited Valter’s experience and flight skills for avoiding a crash.
Most of Noe’s business involved the application of fungicides. Those make the crops healthier, and allow them to thrive despite stresses, and also allow them to remain healthier deeper into the growing season, enabling them to make more use of late rains.
Pesticide application is another important aspect of crop dusting. Farmers rely on a variety of pesticides to kill a variety of insects that threaten crops and yields.
Together, the three pilots can cover 4,500 acres per day.
"They know their stuff and offer high-quality service," said Pioneer Seed Company rep Bob Hanson, who has hired Noe Aviation to treat a few thousand acres of Pioneer crops for several area farmers. "They are very accommodating.
The third service offered by some crop dusters including Noe Aviation -- something fairly new in the agricultural industry -- is something that may surprise some people: Scattering radish seeds.
Radishes and other cover crops planted late in the season are not harvested, but their presences in the soil offers a variety of benefits.
A USDA paper describes the following benefits of radishes as cover crops: Their large roots can help retain soil moisture and reduce erosion. They are excellent at breaking up shallow layers of compacted soils. Planted in late summer, the radishes are not harvested but die in the winter, decay and contribute a nitrogen store for spring planting. Dying off in the winter, the radishes leave root channels so that soil dries and warms up faster in the spring.
Crop duster planes are much larger than the two- or four-seaters which pilots like the Noes use for recreation and transportation. They are designed to carry 2400 pounds of liquid crop treatment, with larger engines, propellers and much sturdier landing gear. Yet, says Mark, it’s a challenge to land a crop duster if it is full of liquid. For that reason, pilots normally have a back-up location to travel to if circumstances prevent them from treating their original field.
The Noes spend their crop-dusting time in Vinton as well as in Watonga, Oklahoma, where Valter Ohman has been crop dusting for many years.
GPS systems are a key to both efficiency and documentation of what the pilot sprayed, when and where.
Kimberly handles all of the orders, and creates a precise GPS mapping of each field to be treated. The GPS systems tell each pilot exactly where to travel, and records when the sprayer is in use. This helps to provide evidence in case someone complains.
The GPS includes a touch-screen inside the cockpit, and a light bar attached to the front of the planes exterior to guide the pilot to the proper location. Kimberly downloads all of the GPS coordinates for each field onto a zip drive, which the pilot plugs into his GPS unit.
Weather is a big factor for crop dusters. Year-to-year precipitation changes make it hard to plan ahead before the crop-growing season. And daily weather patterns during the crop dusting season can impact the schedule. If it's too windy, hot or humid, the pilots have to delay their work until conditions are more favorable. And even during the application process, wind changes can affect how a pilot finishes a field.
The Noes also love aerial photography. Click HERE to see photos from the 2013 season taken by Kimberly.
Atkins woman wins $30K Iowa Lottery prize
Jennifer Parr's drawing of her mom places 1st at State Fair