Helicopter assists with Addison County planting
MIDDLEBURY — Addison County farmers have seen a rainy and consistently wet spring and summer result in a late corn harvest. Now some of those farmers are looking to the skies again — this time for help in planting a cover crop this fall.
This past Tuesday and Wednesday a crop-dusting helicopter dropped nearly 40,000 pounds of a variety of cover crop seeds on several hundred acres of floodplain farmland — primarily cornfields — across the county.
“It was just so consistently wet this year, that although things are coming along, a lot of farms will risk a big hit to their yield if they harvest their corn early,” said Donner Carr, nutrient management planner for Bourdeau Bros. Inc., which supplied the seed used in the helicopter drop. “In a normal year, if they can harvest the corn in time, they can plant their cover crop with machinery on the ground. This year, not so much.”
Why the hurry to get the cover crop in the ground?
To be in compliance with the state’s Required Agricultural Practices, in place sine 2016, farmers must plant cover crops on lands classified as “frequently flooded soils” by Oct. 1 if broadcast seeded, or by Oct. 15 if sewn by a machine on the ground. With so much corn still in the ground, some farms turned to broadcasting their cover crop seed right in among the corn plants that were still a few weeks away from harvest.
Enter Gene Kritter, owner of Kritter Cropdusting of Culpepper, Va., and pilot of its Robinson R66 turbine-powered helicopter. Kritter has been offering fly-over fertilizer services, mostly in the form of foliar feeds for corn, in Addison County since 1997.
“Three of the last four years, we’ve come up to do cover cropping and seed dispersal as well,” Kritter said.
The service costs farms about $15 per acre, a cost Carr says is a worthy investment for farmers who would otherwise have to harvest their corn before it is fully mature.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture and USDA both set aside funds annually to assist farmers with the cost of planting cover crops. According to Nina Gage, an Agency of Agriculture water quality specialist, those funds can be used to finance innovative solutions in poor corn years, like using helicopters to disperse seeds. The agency is currently accepting applications for its Capital Equipment Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance for new or innovative equipment that lets farms improve water quality through their agricultural practices. The deadline for applications for that program is Nov. 1.
Cover cropping is the practice of growing a secondary crop on a productive piece of agricultural land so that the soil stays covered after the primary crop for the season has been harvested. Common cover crops include grasses, small grains or legumes.
“You create an organic silt fence that keeps soil nutrients in the field where they are useful, and out of streams where they cause problems,” says Kritter, who runs a 140-acre farm in Virginia when he is not working as a pilot.
This year, Carr said, Kritter is planting a mix of rye, oats and a special variety of radish called tillage radish that, when mature, grows a tuber that reaches two feet into the earth.
“It pulls nutrients together in the soil, provides structure, then returns those nutrients when it is allowed to break down in the field,” Carr said. The radishes have the added benefit of breaking up compacted soils.
The seeding mechanism is simple: an employee on the ground in the field being seeded fills a bucket that dangles underneath Kritter’s 35-foot-long helicopter with 500 to 700 pounds of seed. Once filled, Kritter brings the craft to a height of about 50 feet and makes long horizontal passes across a field, depositing among the corn approximately 100 pounds of seed per acre in long rows. The bucket is attached to a motorized spreader, which spins and spits seeds out in a 120-foot radius around the helicopter as he flies. The planting is guided by GPS mapping.
“My machinery can distribute seed at a varied rate across a field. It is so precise, that we now have the technological capacity to use data collected by farmers using the GPS devices on their harvesting equipment to distribute seeds or fertilizer at varied rates within a given field,” Kritter said.
Dispersing seeds by helicopter has its advantages, explained Kritter, who previously did the same work with a plane.
“You actually get excellent crop penetration because of the downdraft of the rotors,” he said.
This year, five Addison County farms signed up for the program, many with over 100 acres of land that require seeding. Two years ago, Kritter dispersed cover crop seed over more than 8,000 acres of land across Addison and Franklin counties in Vermont.
Kritter is one of about 2,500 crop dusters nationwide. Most operate in California and the Midwest, and the bulk of Kritter’s business is in the southeast and Mid-Atlantic.
In his years of flying over Addison County farmland, Kritter says he’s seen some change.
“The big farms are getting bigger, and there is certainly more development encroaching on them, but it’s nothing like what I’ve seen in the Mid-Atlantic,” he said. “In the almost 30 years I’ve been doing this, there are at least 100,000 acres that I’ve sprayed that are now a house, a parking lot or a shopping center.”
Kritter expects to fly seed on 15,000 acres across the eastern seaboard this year, helping farms protect watersheds ranging from the Chesapeake Bay to Lake Champlain.