Good community relations for an ag-operation can often be the means to spelling success. It takes a special effort outside the daily tasks of running a flying service to be involved with the local community. But, the rewards can be very satisfying, while at the same time promoting goodwill for the company amongst the local residents.
Willie Lee, owner and operator of Aerial Crop Protection, has accomplished this admirable goal by organizing a local fly-in primarily for young adults at the Belle Glade State Municipal Airport. Along with the help of fellow organizer Larry Robinson, the annual Young Eagles/FFA/4H/Career Day event was held February 11 and 12.
Belle Glade is situated on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, a 730-square mile lake in South Florida. The area is known for its agriculture, mainly sugarcane, but also sweet corn and a variety of vegetables. Because of its geographical location, crops are raised year round.
Willie and Larry recognized a need to keep local young people in the area after graduating from high school, tech school and college. Many of them were leaving for bigger cities and different lifestyles, thus creating a shortage of skilled agricultural employees for primarily the large sugar industry. One sugar company alone, U.S. Sugar Corporation, farms over 187,000 acres of sugarcane in the area.
Larry Robinson is an avid pilot, having formed the Florida Cub Flyers with over 100 members and now serves as its executive director and editor of the association’s “Cub Tales” newsletter. He was also responsible for the formation of the Florida Antique Biplane Association and OFFC (Old Farts Flying Club).
Willie Lee is a longtime ag operator from the Belle Glade airport. The two put their aviation expertise together and decided a good way to keep young people in the local agricultural industry would be to host a fly-in giving free rides for the experience of flight and viewing firsthand how vast and important agriculture is to the area.
Willie Lee has been in ag-aviation for over 60 years. He started flying in a Cub while in high school checking on the family’s cows and eventually chasing birds from corn crops for neighboring farmers. His flying skills expanded to spraying with a Stearman for Belle Glade operator Harry Hunter. Before graduating from high school, Willie bought out Hunter in 1968 and that was the early beginnings of Aerial Crop Protection. “The Stearman is still my favorite ag-plane,” chuckles Willie.
Today, Aerial Crop Protection operates two AT-502Bs. Willie retired from flying several years ago after 39 years and 39,000 hours in his log books. Pilots Wes Platt and Charlie Inderwiesen do most of the flying with Willie’s son-in-law, Bart Perryman, helping out when needed. Bart’s main job is running the operation from the ground.
Loading and working side-by-side, Aerial Crop Protection shares the Belle Glade airport with two other operators; Roma Air Corp and Glades Air Service. A total of nine Air Tractors are based here. “We don’t hustle each other’s business,” says Willie. “We help the other one whenever we can.”
On the first day of the annual fly-in, pilots and ground crews for approximately 25 aircraft were given sugar and citrus tours provided by U.S. Sugar and the Clewiston, Florida Chamber of Commerce.
The next morning, people from throughout the area began to arrive for a full day of airplane rides that included flying 72 young people, as well as enjoying a complimentary barbecue hosted by Florida Crystals Corporation. Florida Crystals Corporation originated in Cuba more than a century ago and is based in West Palm Beach, Florida. Other participates in the event included Roma Air Corp, Glades Air Service, Aerial Crop Protection, University of Florida Extension Center, City of Belle Glade, John Deere dealer Everglades Farm Equipment, Case Farm Equipment dealer Glade & Grove Supply, U.S. Sugar Corporation, Florida Cub Flyers and the EAA Chapter 203 with its Young Eagles Coordinator, Rick Golightly. Without the enthusiastic participation from these groups this event would not have been possible.
From the efforts of many, especially Willie Lee and Larry Robinson, a Glades Agricultural Scholarship Fund (501C3) was formed from donations for the agricultural education of deserving local young people to further the goal of local young people staying and working in the area. This year, an additional scholarship was formed, the Aviation Scholarship Fund, to help local young people discover and enter into aviation. Plans are already being made for next year’s fly-in following the success of this year’s.