Red Beierle descends below the expansive Columbia Basin horizon to the tips of the apple trees, depositing a stream of stop-drop behind him. His Air Tractor 802 all but disappears into the rows before he pulls up into a bank seconds later.

The pass is complete: an entire row treated in a matter of seconds.

To spray an 80-acre orchard from the ground would take five sprayers all day, said Beierle, an aerial applicator based in Royal City, Washington. “We do it in 20–30 minutes.”

Time is the biggest attraction for hiring aerial applicators such as Beierle, and they’re not just for row crops. Tree fruit growers contract planes and helicopters to apply everything from plant growth regulators to sunburn protection. Aerial application in tree fruit has ebbed and flowed over the decades with changes in urban sprawl and chemical restrictions, but labor shortages, overtime rules and changing weather patterns may prompt more growers to look to the skies for help in the coming years.

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