EASTON — If you see a low-flying small plane dipping below the treeline, swooping low over fields and looping back up sharply to do it again — don’t panic. It’s simply aerial agriculture.
Small planes applying cover crops by air during late summer are nothing new to longtime residents of Talbot County, but for the uninitiated, the sight can be unnerving.
Calls from panicked and even irate residents have been pouring into Easton Airport and local crop dusting operations. Unfamiliar with this rural phenomenon, some fear they’re seeing an imminent disaster or reckless behavior by daredevil pilots.
“They don’t know it’s an agricultural operation,” said Easton Airport Manager Micah Risher. “They just think it’s some guy with his private aircraft out goofing off behind their woods, and that he could crash and kill people.”
But planting winter cover crops is one strategy Maryland farmers use to do their part in improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay. The state encourages, and even incentivizes, aerial application of seed.
Aerial agriculture “is not uncommon here at all,” said Greg Gannon, who, with brothers Glen and Gary, farms Harwood Hill Farm on Longwoods and Airport roads, next to Easton Airport.
“Some of our cover crop is applied aerially,” Gannon said. The Gannon brothers’ farming operation, Cecil H. Gannon & Sons Inc., usually plants forage, or daikon, radish. “It’s one of the Maryland-approved cover crops, and should be applied from the air. We try to do every acre we possibly can because it’s good husbandry of the land. It’s a great practice.”
“Throughout the years, I’ve heard that people call the airport because they get alarmed (when) they see a plane over the field,” said Gannon, who enjoys the sight. “It’s a lot of fun to watch them do it.”
It surprises Gannon when concerned citizens call the airport or the farm.
“What’s surprising is, sometimes you can’t see the seed or the spray, especially the radish seeds, even though there are about 300,000 or 400,000 thousand seeds per acre coming out,” Gannon said. “So you may not see it, but at the same time, most people would put it together that this guy’s circling and dipping right back – that’s there’s a purpose to what he’s doing.”
“We have been taking a lot of calls here at the airport,” Risher said. “Spraying started a few weeks ago, so we’ve probably gotten upwards of about 20 phone calls.”
“It’s not like your normal Cessna that’s making a slow turn. It’s this quick pull-up at a steep angle, then looping back around, so it catches the eye,” Risher said. “It’s unusual, so that’s when people start having concerns.”
“We get very few noise complaints,” Risher said. “But crop dusters are the majority of our noise complaints. We don’t get complaints on hardly any other aircraft.”
About five citizens a week call to question what’s going on. “For us, that’s a lot,” Risher said. “We’re trying to educate people that this is one of the joys of living on the Shore.”
When people see aircraft flying low, they get concerned – (some) don’t know it’s an agricultural operation,” Risher said. “But it is FAA-approved, and it’s very vital for the health of the Chesapeake Bay. They’re planting the cover crops to keep excess nitrogen from running down into our waterways. So it’s a big deal.”
Besides recycling nitrogen, cover crops also “reduce erosion, add valuable organic matter to the soil and help protect fields from too much or too little rain,” according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
“When the farmer comes and harvests their crop, the cover crop is already established, so nutrients ... don’t run off into the water supply and into the Bay,” said Jeff Chorman, co-owner and chief pilot, speaking from his plane as he seeded a field on Sept. 10.
Seeding from the air has its advantages. “It gets established earlier and gets started pulling in any excess nitrogen out of the soil,” Chorman said.
“It always looks dangerous to the average person because it is aerobatic flight. The average person thinks it’s far too close or it looks dangerous, but it’s kind of tough to leave it up to their opinion,” Risher said. “However, the proper course of action is to call the FAA’s Flight Standards Division in Baltimore, and they would be the ones who listen and determine if any action would need to be taken.”
“It is legal to fly as low as 500 feet over a rural area, even for a regular sightseeing aircraft,” Risher said. “From the ground it looks extremely low, but it is legal because we are not an overly populated area, except for the incorporated city of Easton (where) aircraft must fly over 1,000 feet. Even if you live in housing development on the outskirts of town, 500 feet is legal.”
“There are times when we get calls from people who think a plane has crashed” when it banks steeply and drops below the treeline, Risher said. “We ask, ‘Was it a yellow plane?’”
That’s because most local crop dusters are yellow or white, like those flown by Allen Chorman and Sons pilots, an aerial agriculture business based in Milton.
“We get calls from concerned citizens in Talbot County,” Chorman said, adding that the main reason for the calls is because residents “only see the airplane once a year.” His operation doesn’t do crop spraying; “we just do cover crops in areas west of Easton (and towards) St. Michaels.
“We get all those calls all the time,” Chorman said. “Most people — once you tell them what you’re doing — they’re fine,” Chorman said. “It’s the fear of the unknown.”
“We’re very, very, very busy,” Chorman said. “We do a tremendous amount of aerial cover crop (in) Maryland and Delaware, but we do a lot right there around Easton.”
Spreading radish seeds over corn waiting to be picked is “sort of the same as sprinkling grass seed on a bare spot on the lawn, and if you don’t work it in at all, it will — most of the time — with dew and some rain, sprout literally on top of the ground and go ahead and grow,” Gannon said.
Among other approved Maryland cover crops are wheat, rye, barley, oats, ryegrass and clover.
“Most of what we do is wheat at two-and-a-half bushels to the acre, or barley, and we also do a lot of radishes around Easton,” Chorman said. He and the five other pilots in his company usually take off out of Ridgely and Cambridge to work in Talbot County.
“These crop dusters do a great job,” Risher said. “They do it every day.”
“These guys have a lot of hours. If they have a problem, they’re going to put (the plane) down in the field; they’re going to miss homes to the extent that they can,” Risher said. “You can never mitigate all the risk out of every operation, but … they have a very good safety record.”
“(One aerial ag pilot) did have to make an emergency landing near Ocean City recently, and he put it down properly in the field — the plane caught on fire — but that just goes to show these guys are very well-trained, highly skilled pilots,” Risher said.
If you have any questions or concerns about the operation of an aircraft, you can call the FAA Flight Standards Division in Baltimore at 443-270-7400.
For more information about the Maryland Cover Crop Program, visit mda.maryland.gov/resource_conservation/counties/2019CCBrochure_F.pdf.