The wind sock at Rowland Dusters in LaSara, Texas, was stretching straight out, which meant Blayne Rowland would working in his office and not flying one of his planes. The wind was close to 30 miles per hour, hardly conducive to crop dusting.
“You might think that a calm day would be perfect, but it's not,” says Rowland. On a calm day, a pilot doesn't know where the herbicide will land. Sometimes it just drifts upwards, becoming less effective and making a mess of the plane.
High winds mean too much drift. “We need winds six to seven miles per hour to do the best job.” But depending on how much the farmer needs his crops dusted, he'll fly in winds up to 25 miles per hour.
Rowland, a third generation duster, has logged 9,000 hours since he started spraying in 1990, following in the footsteps of his dad who has logged upwards of 20,000 hours and keeps going.
“There are only about ten crop dusting businesses left in the Rio Grande Valley,” says Rowland, “down from about 15 ten years ago.” Cropland has diminished, but that's not the only reason. “Aircraft and dusting have become a lot more efficient.” One custom built duster with a 680 hp Pratt-Whitney engine can cover a lot more territory today than the under-powered Super Cubs of years ago, and it will carry chemicals that are a lot more effective. A GPS system aboard the plane maps out the land being sprayed, taking the guesswork out of the process.
One plane can carry 500 gallons, or 4,000 lbs. of chemicals. In three days, a plane can apply 600,000 pounds of fertilizer. To cover a 1300-acre field he makes about 100 passes.
Rowland starts in January with onions and a few greens; he works potatoes in March, watermelons and vegetables in April and May, cotton and sorghum in the summer. “But cotton is still king,” says Rowland, “and the summer cotton season is our biggest.”
“We're also applying a lot more herbicide in the fall than we have in the past. The price of Roundup has come down, so more farmers can afford it.”
“When we have a wet summer we're the busiest.” When cotton and grain re-growth is taking place, farmers can't get in their fields with a tractor to spray, so aerial application becomes necessary.
Rowland Dusters serves farmers in Willacy, Hildalgo and Cameron counties, but “we're all going a little further.” Rowland has flown as far as Laredo and Eagle Pass for jobs.
A duster has to love to fly because it's not an easy business, and the investment is considerable. Each of Rowland's three aircraft cost more than half-a-million dollars.
Insurance is expensive and lawsuits always a worry. Rowland has to study wind directions carefully so he doesn't inadvertently spray a residential area. There are few occupations that are more reliant on the weather.
Having learned from both his grandfather, who started Rowland Dusters in 1946, and his dad, who still works with him, Blayne understands taking precautions when he's flying. “I've brushed a few tree limbs,” he says, but nothing more serious than that.
Blayne and his family also farm. “This year we've got 1700 acres of sorghum, 600 of watermelon and 60 acres of onions.” It helps to know the business from the ground up.