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Crop Dusters Flying in Face of Adversity

Agriculture: Shrinking farmlands and growing complaints about pesticides cut into once-thriving industry in Ventura County.

July 29, 2001|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oxnard crop duster Barrie Turner knows a battle when he sees one.

As he skims over towering stalks of sweet corn at daybreak, sprinkling a watery cocktail of insecticide and nutrients with each swooping pass, the former Vietnam helicopter pilot can easily list his industry's enemies.

Urban encroachment. Loss of farmland. And environmental activists who are targeting his low-flying pesticide runs for elimination.

All have served to cut into business for Aspen Helicopters, Ventura County's only crop-dusting company. In fact, the company has reduced its crop-dusting fleet at the Oxnard Airport from five helicopters in the late 1980s to three today.

"People have the wrong impression of what we're doing out there," said Turner, 63, who grew up in Ojai and has logged more than 10,000 hours buzzing the county's row crops and orchards since 1966.

"All three of the pilots here were born and raised in this county. This is not just some fly-by-night operation coming in here to slop this stuff around," he said. "We've got roots here; we've got families here. We're not here to poison the world."

Crop dusting is not what it used to be.

Once a place where fixed-wing aircraft would swoop down to unleash great clouds of toxic pesticides, local farmland now is dusted by helicopters using satellite systems to guide their movements and pinpoint the drops.

Moreover, government restrictions have toned down the potency of pesticides that can be used and many of the chemicals applied on local crops are organically based, posing fewer environmental problems, pilots and agricultural officials say.

Still, the industry is flying in the face of adversity.

Statewide, the number of crop dusters fell from about 1,200 in the mid-1980s to 408 today, squeezed by tough environmental laws, soaring insurance costs, mounting homeowner complaints and the loss of more than a million acres of farmland over the past 20 years.

The battle to stay in business is reflected in Ventura County.

There used to be three crop-dusting companies based in the county in the 1980s; now there is one. Business dried up as the county lost thousands of acres of farmland in the past 10 years and as growers moved to crops, such as strawberries, that have less need for aerial spraying.

But perhaps the tightest squeeze has come from homeowners and environmentalists, who have long complained about the noise, dust and health risks crop dusters leave behind.

Deborah Bechtel, a founding member of Community & Children's Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning in Ventura County, said she and board member Elise Wright accepted an invitation from Aspen pilots two years ago to learn more about the operation.

Bechtel said she was impressed by the steps the pilots take to do their job safely. But she still supports her group's campaign to ban aerial applications.

"The best efforts by pilots can be negated just by the level of toxic chemicals they are using," she said. "These people do need to work, and they are very good at what they do. But if you talk about aerial spraying anywhere near populated areas, people don't want that drifting onto their property."

Pilots Take Many Precautions

With first light bleeding into the sky, Aspen's agriculture manager, Rob Scherzinger, made his first pass over a cornfield at the bottom of the Conejo Grade in Camarillo. As usual, it was done with no pesticide in the tanks on each side of his Bell Jet Ranger.

He was looking for people--farm workers, early morning joggers--who might inadvertently be passing through the area. Seeing no one, Scherzinger set down across the street from the Camarillo Springs Golf Course, near an Aspen truck where two workers waited to load the chemicals.

One grabbed a thick hose snaking out from the truck and plugged it into a tank. The other cranked up a motor and began pumping out the blend of insecticide and nutrients.

Scherzinger got out and inspected each of the 64 spray nozzles, designed to reduce drift and sitting inches apart on two rods extending from each side of the helicopter like giant wings.

Then he was up in the air, mapping out the boundaries of the spray area on a tiny computer screen with the copter's satellite guidance system. He sprayed along the edges, then filled in the area one pass at a time, floating so close to the tops of the tall green stalks that it appeared he could brush them with his feet.

"It's kind of like mowing grass," he said from the cockpit as the chemical mix drifted down in tiny vapor circles on each side of him. "I just happen to have a half-million-dollar riding mower."

Scherzinger, a 1967 Fillmore High School graduate who also trained in the Army to fly helicopters, teamed with Aspen owner Charles McLaughlin in 1984 to launch the company's agricultural service. Aspen sprays about 50,000 acres annually, dousing oranges, avocados and all manner of row crops from Riverside to San Luis Obispo.

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