The National Agricultural Aviation Association is pleased to announce its 2021 officer team, led by NAAA President Mark Kimmel. Serving alongside Kimmel are Vice President Jim Perrin, Secretary Sue Stewart and Treasurer Dwayne O’Brien. Let’s meet this year’s officers.
President Mark Kimmel (Mississippi)
In the 1920s, the agricultural aviation industry was born. It started over a grove of Catalpa trees outside of Troy, Ohio, in 1921, but the service expanded its fortified commercial roots in the Mississippi River Delta. One hundred years later and with a plethora of progressive changes, the industry continues to thrive and evolve on this, its centenary. Appropriately, leading the industry this momentous year as NAAA’s 2021 president is a fortified, gentlemanly leader from the Mississippi Delta, Mark Kimmel.
Those who know Kimmel know he is a thoughtful, intelligent, broad-minded and industrious ag aviation operator and farmer from Greenwood, Mississippi. And just as the ag aviation industry’s roots stem from this densely rich agricultural area, so do Kimmel’s roots in both ag aviation and farming. He is the perfect leader for NAAA and the ag aviation industry as the latter celebrates its centennial this year.
Kimmel owns Dixie Dusters Inc. in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Kimmel has two Air Tractor AT-502B planes and two pilots. There are seven employees, himself included. Dixie Dusters provides aerial application services to farmers in the Mississippi Delta. His pilots have less than a 15-mile ferry in either direction from his operation with approximately 40 customers. “There are more flying services in this compacted area than probably anywhere in the state, if not the country. Eight different flying services overlap within this area of the Delta,” Kimmel says.
“We all have plenty of work,” he adds. “We have no competition from ground applications because it is so wet, which results in a great need for aerial application of inputs.”
Kimmel also farms year-round on 3,000 acres, growing cotton, soybeans and corn. The busiest time of year for him is from September to March. That is when he is picking cotton, desiccating and cutting soybeans and corn, marketing his current crop, identifying what to plant the following season, and getting leases in order and executing the plans.
Kimmel has been farming and applying using variable rate (VR) technology since 2005. He purchased the equipment 15 years ago for $80,000 and was one of the first to use it. In his first year alone, he saved $14,000 in fertilizer costs using the technology on just a 400-acre test plot. In addition, his overall yields increased markedly. He also used the technology on his flying service’s customers’ land, providing them savings. Today, about 20% of his cotton farmers utilize his VR fertilizer aerial application services.
Kimmel was president of the Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Association (MAAA) in 2008 and 2009—and held all of its other officer positions before that. In 2014 he became MAAA’s representative on NAAA’s board of directors. Since that time—and as a testament to his leadership—Kimmel is the only person to have held all of the officer positions at NAAA and in succession—secretary (2017), treasurer (2018), vice president (2020) and now president. He also remained on NAAA’s Executive Committee as the immediate past treasurer in 2019.
Before serving on NAAA’s board, Kimmel was on the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum Foundation Board. The museum, located in Jackson, Mississippi, houses the National Agricultural Aviation Museum (NAAM) and Hall of Fame and numerous other ag exhibits.
Kimmel’s main focus this year as the aerial application industry celebrates its centennial is to use not only the nostalgic, historical past of the industry to generate public attention and positive media coverage but also to promote the technology and stewardship practices the industry has embraced over the past 10 decades. “This could be a true opening for positive press for us,” he said.
Kimmel is a major proponent of NAAA’s Precision Agriculture Committee and its efforts to facilitate more automation in manned aircraft aerial application and embracing and building efficiencies in precision application use. “Things change, and we need to be right there with it,” he said. “That is something this industry has done since its inception. It’s evolved, stayed relevant and stayed alive.”
Vice President Jim Perrin (Wisconsin)
Jim Perrin is NAAA’s 2021 vice president. He previously served as NAAA treasurer in 2017. His company, Agricair Flying Service in Bancroft, Wisconsin, has 10 employees, including Jim and his wife, Julie. Jim is the chief supervisor and Julie manages the office and handles the logistics work with Agricair’s customers. The Perrins have two pilots besides Jim and six employees on the ground crew. After flying two Thrush planes and an Ag-Cat, the company will operate three Thrushes this season.
NAAA’s new VP is a strong advocate for NAAA—the industry’s advocate—and would like more operators and pilots to support the association as members.
“The association is the only thing that stands between us doing our job and not doing our job,” Perrin said. “I’m always just a little amazed and perplexed when people aren’t members. I hear complaints sometimes from people about issues from years and years ago, and my response to them is that the only way to make a change is to get involved. I really believe that the only group out there that’s truly advocating for aerial application is the National Ag Aviation Association.”
To emphasize that point, Perrin singled out the two things he sees as the biggest threats to the industry and the work NAAA is doing on aerial applicators’ behalf to contend with those issues.
“I think the biggest issue facing us as pilots and operators really the most directly is product registration. I think the second biggest issue facing us is the potential for hours of service,” he said. “NAAA has done an incredible job in both fields. Without NAAA, I honestly believe that we would already be dealing with massive buffer zones that would be unworkable for aerial application. We would literally be down to a handful of products left that we could spray by air. The second one, hours of service, the FAA has made it clear at every single meeting that that is on the table. The NTSB has made that clear. And so far, in my opinion, the only thing that’s made that situation workable is the work of NAAA.”
Perrin is excited about the work NAAA is doing to commemorate the agricultural aviation industry’s 100th anniversary this year. “The hundredth anniversary is a big deal. It’s an opportunity for us to showcase our industry,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity to talk about and maybe sell our industry in a public setting in a way that the conversation didn’t have to start on a negative tone.”
Secretary Sue Stewart (Texas)
Sue Stewart is the co-owner of D & S Aerial in Haskell, Texas. She and Dewayne Phillips bought their one-plane operation in 2005. Stewart, who is from Haskell County and was raised by her farmer/rancher parents, handles all the front-facing work with farmers and Phillips flies their Air Tractor AT-502. Cotton, wheat and pastureland are their three main crops.
Stewart began attending NAAA’s board meetings in 2010 when she became the New Mexico WNAAA representative. She served as treasurer of the WNAAA in 2014 and chaired the NAAA Support Committee in 2019 and ’20. She is also the executive secretary of the New Mexico Agricultural Aviation Association.
Following a bylaw change enacted in December 2014, the WNAAA was reconstituted as the NAAA Support Committee in 2015. Stewart had doubts about the change initially but quickly came around after seeing how women were able to become more involved at all NAAA board levels. “I was kind of iffy, I’ll have to admit, at first, but I really think it has made a pretty huge difference in how the women are getting used,” Stewart said. “We have some intelligent women on our board. … I’m so proud that they’re getting to serve and do things on the NAAA level because I think they’re a true asset to the NAAA.”
Hard-to-see drones and meteorological evaluation towers are two issues facing the industry of concern to Stewart. “It seems like everybody is getting a drone. I’ve had some customers that live fairly close to the airport, and they’re really good about calling to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be counting cattle today. What are your plans?’ You know, kind of working with us,” she said. “Go the opposite direction and we’re not very far from a little airport that [flies] model airplanes and now drones. It hasn’t been a problem, but it is a concern.… I do realize they’re coming around and they’re going to be a part of things [in agriculture].”
Being in an area populated by wind turbines, keeping track of quickly erected met towers is an ongoing challenge for D & S Aerial. “Luckily, our competitors, we all talk back and forth, but those met towers just pop up,” Stewart said. “We were spraying a field and went back two days later to do the field right next to it, and there was a met tower there. That’s how fast it went up. It wasn’t there and then it was there. That’s a concern of ours because they’re not putting them on a log or calling us or anything.”
Treasurer Dwayne O’Brien (Louisiana)
As someone trained in NAAA’s Leadership Training Program in 1998, Dwayne O’Brien, NAAA’s new treasurer, jokes that he is a late return on NAAA’s investment. Although he grew up in the industry, before O’Brien officially began ag flying in the mid-1990s, he was in the Army’s special operations forces. O’Brien remained in the Army’s reserve force but left active duty in 1994 to begin flying for O’Brien Flying Service in Iowa, Louisiana, for his father, Zoren O’Brien. It was the best of both worlds—he maintained his military ties in the reserves in the winter months and got to fly ag in the summer. Then 9/11 happened. One month after the terrorist attacks, the Army sent O’Brien to Afghanistan. He got his orders while he was at NAAA’s fall board meeting in San Diego.
Dwayne took over the business from Zoren in 2004. Today O’Brien Flying Service runs four aircraft—three Air Tractor AT-502XP planes and one AT-502—and has about 22 employees during its peak from April to early July. Its primary crop is rice.
O’Brien appreciates all the work NAAA does on behalf of the industry on a variety of issues. Among the most salient issues for him and his fellow ag pilots is the work NAAA does to ensure products are approved or remain registered for aerial use.
“Product relabeling and registration is big for us. [NAAA comments on] roughly 50 to 60 reregistrations of products registered for aerial use a year. If the products we put out don’t get relabeled, that’s going to directly affect all of us. If we don’t have the products, you don’t really need us,” he said. “It’s very important not to lose sight of that. That’s essential to us, and I think a lot of people take that for granted.”
Like father, like son: Zoren O’Brien was NAAA’s treasurer in 1994 and NAAA president in ’95. His mother was president of the WNAAA in 2000-2001. After the elder O’Briens were tragically killed last August, NAAA renamed its Outstanding Service Award the Zoren and Joan O’Brien Memorial Outstanding Service Award after Dwayne’s parents. O’Brien appreciated the gesture. “It was very nice. It was a culmination of a lot of the hard work that both of them did.”
Recalling lessons he learned from them, O’Brien said his parents taught him to be fair and honest in everything you do. “There will be days when you see people that aren’t, and they usually don’t stick around in this business very long. Try to be helpful. We help even my competitors. They’ll call me for parts or special tools or ask, ‘Hey, did you have this problem before?’ Yeah, and I’ll share it with them. To just be a team player. The military imposes a lot of that on you and dad was military too. Mama came from a big family. They really liked being around other people. That’s just the way I was raised, to always help the other person.”
Strength in Numbers: Join NAAA
NAAA is fortunate to have a dedicated group of officers and volunteer leaders serving on its board of directors, but there is also strength in numbers. If you aren’t a member, the single-most effective way you can address the range of critical issues facing your business is by joining NAAA. The payoff far exceeds what you will spend in dues in the form of effective advocacy, national representation, education and safety programs and the personal connections you will make as you participate in association activities.
To join, call (202) 546-5722 or visit AgAviation.org/membership.