Dinosaurs, dodos ... crop-dusters?

On a breezy afternoon here in the heart of the Corn Belt, the only thing flying at Agri-Tech Aviation is the orange wind sock.

The grass landing strip, cut between fields of soybean and corn, is empty, and two of the company's three spray planes sit idle in hangers. The third is in Texas - the first time Iowa's oldest and largest crop-dusting operation has had to send an aircraft out of state for business.

The nose dive wasn't caused by any of the usual suspects - drought or low prices, although they played a role - but by a high-tech invader: genetically altered crops.

While few people pine for more pests, the plight of the crop-duster is evidence that bug-resistant plants are having an impact beyond butterflies and taco shells. Daredevil "chemical cowboys" may never have attained quite the romantic status of real wranglers or jet jockeys, but they have left a mark on popular culture, most notably chasing Cary Grant in "North By Northwest." Now, the biotech offensive is threatening to ground an agricultural icon.

"The industry is in deep trouble right now," says Stuart Kimmel, whose own Mississippi crop-dusting venture has lost 40 percent of its business.

Few reliable statistics exist for what has come to be known as the "aerial application" business, but anecdotal evidence suggests crop-dusters are in a tailspin.

"We operated the last two years at 50 percent of average," says Terry Sharp, the ruddy-faced aviator who runs Agri-Tech. He estimates 25 percent of the "aerial applicators" in Iowa have closed up shop since 1997.

Others nationwide offer similar tales. "My business has dropped dramatically," says John Witthuhn, a solo operator based in Callaway, Neb. Instead of spraying as many as 50,000 acres of corn, this year he did only about 7,000.

Even far away from the corn belt, where genetic modification isn't as pervasive, a combination of factors is hurting the bottom line. In Mississippi, Mr. Kimmel plans to cut back his operation from six planes to one, and he recently laid off three of his five pilots.

He attributes the drop to a federally funded effort to eradicate the boll weevil, as well as the rise of genetically altered crops.

For many crop-dusters, the trend means scrambling to find other jobs. Kimmel has tried aerial forestry surveying. Mr. Sharp has done some near-infrared field photography in Iowa. And Mr. Witthuhn has taken to doing some auto-body work, and he's borrowed a neighbor's plane to ferry a local businessman around to his regional chain of steak restaurants.

"I'm not going to be able to depend on [crop-dusting] to make my living - and I haven't for at least three years now," he says.

To some degree, the image of the daredevil crop-duster has been disappearing for some time. On a crisp autumn day in central Iowa, Sharp stands proudly next to his plane - a sleek prop plane equipped with satellite tracking and other high-tech tools that can cost up to $400,000.

"You still see some biplanes, but the barnstormer thing and the romanticism are a long time ago," says Sharp. "[Crop-dusting is] a very serious investment...."

Not that the profession doesn't still attract its share of colorful stick-and-rudder men.

One of Sharp's two pilots is a flooded-out ex-farmer who flies in the summer and plays the commodity markets in the winter. The other lives in Colorado during the winter, where he does fill-in vet work, including staffing a portable pet clinic that travels to Aspen and Vail. He's known as doggie doctor to the stars.

Some crop-dusters view the battle over genetically altered food raging across Europe with faint hope that it will alter their industry's fortunes, prompting Iowa farmers to abandon genetically altered corn en masse.

Sharp doesn't buy that assessment, but neither does he think bioengineering will herald the end of an era.

"The nice thing about nature is it keeps throwing curves," says Sharp, whose company was founded in 1947. "The pests may change, and the practices may change, but there's always going to be some need for aerial applicators."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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