Tommy Anderson sat on his combine, harvesting one of the soybean fields he farmed with his dad in northern Jefferson County, Arkansas. It was a beautiful fall day in the late ’70’s.
As he moved the massive machine through the rich green foliage, Anderson watched as a Piper J-3 Cub descended softly out of the sky, settling onto an adjacent gravel road.
And watching the little plane gently kiss the ground after performing its daily dance over Delta fields, something inside him clicked.
Before he knew it, Anderson had talked the pilot of that J-3 Cub into taking him up for a test ride.
The next year, Anderson was dusting his own fields, and by 1981, he and his dad, Clint Anderson, bought out a local service. Almost forty years later, Tommy’s Flying Service out of Sherrill, Arkansas, still applies the necessary weed control products and fertilizer over fields throughout east central Arkansas.
And it remains a family business. Anderson, 61, employs three other pilots, including Derek Hallum, who married his only child, Tara.
Clients run the gamut from small farms to big operations like Brantley Farming Co., which recently finished paving the 2,000-foot-long landing strip it built for Anderson in the ’90’s. Pretty sweet set up, but not typical.
Most of Anderson’s clients buy the products they need for their fields and have them delivered to Anderson’s home base in Sherrill, a nice little spot in the road just southeast of Little Rock between England and Pine Bluff.
The Brantleys, however, who farm more than 10,000 acres, keep tanks full of crop protection products at the strip and supply farm hands to fill ’er up when Anderson calls. Anderson even keeps his own fuel tank at the strip.
His is one of about 200 crop dusting operations in Arkansas, and from April through October, they all stay busy. In season, Anderson’s day begins at 5:00am. Some days, he doesn’t get home till 9:00pm or later. Still, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Aerial application is the proper name, though, of course, most of us who grew up in the South always called them crop dusters—those aerial acrobats whose maneuvers still transfix kids in passing cars.
The roots of agricultural aviation extend back to 1906 when a New Zealand farmer used a hot air balloon with mobile tethers to spread seed over a swamped valley floor. Crop dusting as we know it today was born in 1921 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Army Signal Corps set out in Ohio to eradicate catawba worms that were eating the leaves off trees the Army harvested to make utility poles.
The practice was highly successful, and by 1922 the Army had established an experimental station at Tallulah, Louisiana, where cotton was dusted for boll weevils. (Delta Airlines, founded in nearby Monroe, started out as a crop dusting service.)
Pilots used converted old World War I planes then, but the practice of “aerial application” didn’t really catch on until after World War II when the U.S. Army Air Corps sold surplus aircraft from the war.
“Planes could be purchased and converted for $500, and old pilots from the war could make a living,” Anderson said.
And what a difference they made on America’s ability to produce food in mass quantities and essentially help feed the world. Family patriarch and third-generation farmer Laudies Brantley Jr. said both land and plants are better today in part because of them.
It wasn’t until the 1950’s that aircraft was designed specifically for agriculture. But vintage WWII aircraft remained in use through the early ’80’s, when the combustion-based radial piston engine was replaced by turboprop, a jet engine in which a turbine is used to drive a propeller.
Add in GPS guidance—which helps pilots evenly disperse the product—and things we now take for granted like air conditioning, and “aerial ag” is a whole new ballgame. Anderson’s been around to witness those changes first hand.
“It’s not the same. It’s just changed,” he underscored.
Anderson’s plane is a Thrush 510, built in Georgia and valued at about $1 million. It has a cruising speed of about 150 mph and a range of more than 1,000 miles (at roughly half power) at 7,500 feet.
It can hold two passengers and 510 liquid gallons. Anderson charges by the acre when he’s applying weed control products, or, when he’s spreading fertilizer, by the pound.
And yes, the Thrush allows Anderson to get a little creative in the air. He’s clipped a tree line or two pulling up out of a field, but you won’t see him doing many loop-de-loops. He simply relishes being able to survey the patchwork canvas of the Delta from a bird’s eye view while making his own contribution to the world’s symbolic breadbasket.
That spontaneous ride across a crisp, blue autumn sky indeed was a life changer, if not simply a career changer, for Anderson. It led to a pilot’s license and to dusting his own fields, and the business that launched a second career has grown to ten employees. And better yet for Anderson, it remains a family operation.
“I grew up on a rice farm and never had any interest in crop dusting,” Anderson said. “But I love what I do now more than I ever did. I’m not burned out at all. I always loved being around farming, and I’m fortunate in that I still contribute to farming in my own way.”
With his son-in-law poised to take over the business someday, Anderson can rest assured that contribution will carry on. Plus, he has two grandsons, ages five and three.
“The oldest,” Anderson said, “goes to bed each night dreaming about flying an ag plane.”
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