I just returned from Iowa and my ears are still ringing from the gut-crunching drone of low-flying airplanes—the kind that seem to be all engine and spray nozzles. About a dozen crop dusters blanketed one county alone during a two-day period, spraying for aphids—thirsty little monsters that literally suck the life juices out of crops like soybeans. The rolling hills of Cass County were under chemical siege from dawn ’til dusk.
A lack of timely rains and the absence of aphid predators like lady beetles have made the pests a real threat to soybeans in certain parts of the Midwest this summer. In a year when floods and a late spring are already making a good harvest iffy, no one’s taking any chances, even if it means paying $14 to $15 per acre to hire a daredevil who skims the earth while sitting on tanks of toxin. One farmer joked that they were going to charge him less since his rolling hills were more scenic than his neighbor’s land, but these drag racing dusters don’t have the luxury of sightseeing—they spend most of their time keeping twitchy eyes on gauges, global positioning system equipment and power lines.
My father flew and repaired Piper Cubs during World War II (they were nicknamed “Grasshoppers”) and some of his comrades went on to be crop dusters in civilian life. The cramped quarters of Grasshopper cabins, coupled with the life-threatening nature of low-altitude flying, prepared these men for the aerial spraying life. World War II technology made chemicals available to agriculture, and war machines like airplanes were the perfect apparatuses for applying them to the land.
Was there any other time in history when we had so many pilots trained to fly at low altitudes? My father’s friends loved cranking those engines and buzzing under power lines and over farmhouses (my mom and dad once watched a woman lift a telephone line with a long pole so her husband’s plane could pass underneath). But most of all, they felt they were providing a critical public service to a hungry world—albeit one that allowed them to feed an adrenaline jones they picked up over the battlefields of France and Belgium. My dad, for one, seemed to have gotten his fill of excitement during the Battle of the Bulge, and played his part in the post-war food system by farming as close to terra firma as possible.
In Iowa last week, the planes dipped so low I could see what the pilots were wearing in their bubble-topped cockpits, and the stench of chemicals was nauseating, even inside of houses. Farmers complained of getting strafed with insecticides while out on their tractors or driving back roads. Some took showers when they got home; others probably didn’t. But all the ones I talked to felt this was a small price to pay if it meant saving the crop. The crop dusters had to feel pretty good too—not unlike pilots who drop liquids on forest and grass fires to save valuable real estate out West.
I must admit it’s hard to argue against such emergency measures when an entire harvest is under threat. But I can’t forget what one farmer said to me as we stood watching a plane misting insecticide down on a creek bottom: “The trouble is, it kills the good bugs too.”
That means the lady beetles probably won’t be back next year to hunt aphids. And so the planes of August may be called into action again. I smell a vicious cycle in the works.