Author’s note: I visited Harold Thompson in May of this year in Tarboro, North Carolina. Shortly after that, on July 31, Harold got a closeup look of a telephone pole in his AT-402A. The aircraft was destroyed, but by the grace of God, Harold is with us today, doing what he does best, managing Air Ag. He hopes to be back in an ag plane before too long.
TARBORO, NC — It used to be if an ag aviation company set up shop in an area where there were crops grown that typically required spraying, that company would eventually develop a clientel. Of course, an area can only support a certain number of ag aircraft, but there seemed to always be some spraying for everyone.
The aforementioned is a very general view. Sure, there have been operators who set up shop and went out of business due to lack of. However today, even for established companies, the scenario of losing business (market share) is raising its head. The way ag aviation should do business is changing.
Not unlike farming, agav companies are needing more and more to search out new business to supplement the old. When a commercial pilot’s license and an ag plane were once all that was needed, today a good understanding of managing and marketing principles are just as important.
More and more ag operators are realizing the need to market their services. This not only includes the established work, but the establishment of new work. Even more importantly, is the way an operator acquires this work.
One such progressive agav operation is based in east, central North Carolina. Owned and operated by Harold Thompson, Air Ag, Inc. – Aerial Agri-Services of Tarboro, North Carolina, looks for new business and works diligently to keep it.
Harold began loading ag aircraft in his high school years for Air Care of Rocky Mount, North Carolina at their Tarboro strip. In 1987 he began flying ag for Air Care while he also flew corporate aircraft (Beechcraft King Air) for the company. After two years, Harold proposed to Air Care that he purchase the aerial spraying division in Tarboro, and he did.
Working with a Cessna Ag Wagon, of which came with the Tarboro company, he mostly flew over cotton, peanuts and tobacco. Cotton is the primary crop. It has been said that Tarboro was the home of the first boll weevil contracts flown in the late 1970s. Over the years, the fleet grew to a total of four C-188s.
Tarboro and surrounding counties are not blessed with large acreages. No mile+ spray runs like the central plains of Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. The region is cut up into small fields often spread miles apart; ideal work for a Cessna Ag Truck. But, even utilizing a reliable and profit-maker ag plane like the C-188, there could be a need for a more productive ag plane, if there was more work and the work was managed properly.
Right away Harold knew he would have to put his marketing skills to work. He implemented two actions; one was to start a newsletter, Aerial View, and the other was a “sign-up” program for his customers. The newsletter is an informative way to reach his and potential customers. The sign-up program is an innovative way to delegate the work first to his most loyal customers.
Harold built a fine business. He recruited a friend, Richard Brake, who had desktop publishing skills. Between the two men, Harold explained what information he wanted to relay to his customers, with Richard taking these concepts and developing professional color brochures and newsletters. They would dream up slogans: No field is too soft when sprayed from aloft!; Insurance that you know you’re going to use; We’re more than a 911 service; many farming families use Air Ag as part of their management team; all of these slogans have been included in many different brochures and newsletters.
The brochures include data comparing cost of operating ground machines versus aerial applications. The data includes the cost of pest damage, percentages of damage related to cost and how delaying an application costs the grower money; factual information in easy to understand numerical text and graphical format.
Then, using the brochure, Harold educates his customers to the benefits of contracting the acreage they plan to treat “before” they need the applications. The brochure lists the Benefits of Contracting: Reserve a “Place in Line”, prevent wet field delays, improve response time, avoid cutting up fields and damaging crops, free-up your time for other matters, and contract = discount.
Harold offers a contract package that will fit the needs of each individual grower. The grower agrees to buy in advance a certain number of acres to be sprayed. Thus, Air Ag knows at the beginning of the season the minimum number of acres that will be flown. Without a doubt, this allows for better planning that always results in a more profitable business.
Typically, growers receive a brochure, followed by a letter. They are asked to commit for at least three sprays on specific acreage, regardless of field conditions. A sign-up fee is paid at the time of the commitment. This will guarantee the grower to be in the first group to be sprayed when all others must in essence “get in the back of the line”. Also, the grower will receive a discount for his application. Air Ag’s sign-up program must work, since another brochure “Contracting Aerial Spraying Services for Cotton in 2001” has been mailed for the twelfth consecutive year!
But, no matter how well a company manages and markets, mother nature can always deliver a devastating blow. This is exactly what happened to Air Ag September 17, 1999. The ravages of Hurricane Floyd came ashore at the North Carolina coastline bringing with it torrents of rain; rainfall that exceeded 16 inches in 24 hours. Off the east end of the Tarboro air strip lies the Tar River. During the night, the river crested its banks with water rising over the airport to a level in the Air Ag hangars of more than eight feet! Ag aircraft were almost completely submerged.
After 10 years of marketing and managing, Air Ag had finally been able to buy a more productive aircraft, an Air Tractor AT-402. In February of 1999, Air Ag had bought a brand new AT-402 from Chuck Stone of Southeastern Aircraft Sales and Service in Fort Pierce, Florida. When the flood came, the aircraft barely had 300 hours on it. The flood waters rose to the engine gearbox of the aircraft, submerging the rear end of the PT6, as well as a majority of the airframe.
The flood waters crept into the hangars, the office, the file cabinets, the aircraft and anything less then eight feet high. It was truly a disaster; an act of God and no flood insurance. Records were wet, floors ruined, sheetrock walls and insulation destroyed. Damage incurred that could only be repaired with replacement.
Chuck Stone came to the rescue sending an AT-502 to use. Air Ag was shut down during the busiest two weeks of the season. The following year, Harold replaced the AT-402 with another new one from Southeastern. The Cessna 188s were repaired with new IO-550 engines from Bonaire. The area was declared a disaster by the Federal government, qualifying Air Ag for SBA disaster money.
From the efforts of Air Ag’s neighbors, friends and business associates, and a loan from the SBA, the facilities have been rebuilt, better than ever before. Business continues as usual looking on from the outside, but from the inside the ramifications of the flood of 1999 will be a force to deal with for years to come.
Harold is often asked, “Why didn’t you fly out the aircraft?” The answer is, it happened too fast. Remember, it had been raining for days. At 6:00 pm water was rising over the banks of the Tar River, but the airport had never flooded before. By 2:00 am, evacuation started and at 7:00 am there was five feet of water on the runway and rising; too fast and too late.
Managing and marketing, that’s what it is all about with any business. Today, it is more important than ever for those two efforts to be focused and executed in an ag aviation company. Harold Thompson has done it with Air Ag. As a matter of fact, he has been doing it for years. The results are obvious, the company is successful, an example for all. Despite a telephone pole!