Donned with hoppers of sanitizer and COVID personal protection equipment (PPE), the lion’s share of NAAREF and NAAA’s Board arrived in our national capital region in mid-February for three days of substantive meetings and advocacy to advance the aerial application industry in the U.S. Even with congressional and federal executive offices closed due to COVID-19, NAAA provided the board and committee members with briefs on the key policy issues pertaining to agricultural aviation so they could virtually contact public officials.
policymakers, such as U.S. Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) at the Feb. 12 AgAv PAC breakfast, which raises funds to support candidates running for federal office who are supportive of agricultural aviation issues. Sen. Boozman applauded the audience of ag aviators for their advocacy every year in the nation’s capital, visiting federal legislators’ offices and informing them of regulatory concerns and regulatory successes. He emphasized that it makes a big difference, especially now, and to keep up the good work. It will be needed over the next Congress, as laws and tax increases could be considered that may be burdensome and unnecessary to agriculture.
Following the breakfast, Ed Messina, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) director of the Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP), and Amy Blankinship, chief of OPP’s Environmental Risk Branch, provided an update to the NAAA Board on federal pesticide policy. Both EPA representatives stated that through meetings and correspondence with NAAA and NAAA’s comments to proposed risk assessments on the aerial use of pesticides as part of the FIFRA reregistration process, the agency has made changes to the aerial risk profile and allowed more aerial uses and/or fewer restrictive requirements through mitigating boom length size and other drift reduction techniques. The EPA reps proposed following up on NAAA’s requests to work through numerous aspects of atmospheric displacement of aerially applied products as calculated by the AgDRIFT model that would lead to moving the agency away from the unrealistic risk overestimates of Tier 1 to Tier 3 of the model, which far more reflects aerial application setups today and provides a more realistic use profile. The two EPA representatives also stated that they would continue to identify gaps in the atmospheric models for unmanned aircraft, identify those risks when the data gaps are filled and run those risks through a labeling process for comment.
State of NAAA/Ag Aviation Industry
After the EPA presented, 2021 NAAA President Mark Kimmel from Mississippi invited Andrew Moore, NAAA’s chief executive officer, to the podium to deliver his state of the association/industry report. Moore began by touting optimism with the agricultural economy stating that USDA has dropped 2020 corn estimates by 1.1 billion bushels to 14.192 billion bushels; soybeans by 35 million bushels to 4.135 billion bushels; and cotton by 2.14 million bales to 14.953 million bales. These tight supplies, a large China appetite bolstered by the Trump Administrations Phase 1 agreement for the Chinese to buy $80 billion worth of agricultural exports in the next two years, and dry South American weather make markets highly sensitive to demand spikes. Moore also mentioned agricultural trade might benefit as well, with the Biden Administration working on a U.S./U.K. trade agreement and by attempting to enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Moore then discussed policy issues and stated that the return of Tom Vilsack as USDA secretary under President Biden would likely result in an attempt to use the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to create a “carbon bank” to pay producers for using sustainable farming practices to capture carbon in the soil. Former Secretary Sonny Perdue used the CCC to try to provide relief to farmers hurt by China’s trade boycott of U.S. agricultural products. It is possible that cover cropping could be classified as a sustainable farming method, which would be beneficial to aerial applicators. Moore stated that a negative proposal for the agriculture economy could be President Biden’s push for more electric vehicles, resulting in a drop in ethanol and corn production.
Moore stated that President Biden’s selection as the administrator of the EPA, Michael Regan—formerly the head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality—is known as a voice of reason. Regan has worked well with many agri-chemical companies based in North Carolina as well as animal producers. He will have to make some big decisions and deal with pressure from environmental activists on the reregistration of products such as paraquat, chlorpyrifos and many other active ingredients coming up under FIFRA reregistration requirements.
Switching gears, Moore brought up public relations issues and focused on the industry’s 100th anniversary and the multitude of events that are taking place to promote the agricultural aviation industry to the trade and news media. Moore mentioned receiving Disney and the Smithsonian’s permission to display the Air Tractor AT-400 aircraft converted to look like Dusty Crophopper, the main character of the 2013 movie Planes. Rusty Lindeman from Texas owns the plane and is donating the aircraft. An NAAA media event is scheduled for the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Dulles Branch, Aug. 3, 2021, the official anniversary, with pre-anniversary celebrations to take place at EAA’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the preceding week. An official request has been made to AirVenture’s air show coordinator to have multiple ag aircraft models—from old to new—fly in the show. An Ag Day celebration also is being planned on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., over Columbus Day weekend. Glenn Martin is planning to bring his Jet Ranger helicopter with booms to display at the event. The National Agricultural Aviation Museum and Hall of Fame is also working on anniversary celebrations at its site in Jackson, Mississippi.
The first draft of a book has been completed, illustrations from years of photographs are being paired with it and a publisher has been chosen. A draft timeline covering the 10 decades of advances and evolution of the industry is complete. Museum-quality exhibits of the timeline will be made for display at museums and for state ag aviation associations to purchase and use for their own promo-celebrations. An eight-minute documentary was presented at the convention, a trailer that premiered on social media received over 50,000 views, and an upcoming 15-minute video of the industry’s history is currently in production. NAAA’s new 100th anniversary website, AgAviation100.com, features the accompanying timeline, videos, b-roll footage and a list of the 100th anniversary sponsors. Announcements to trade and news magazines, newspapers, social media and television sources will be sent informing them of the anniversary and industry information.
Moore then delved into education and safety issues focusing on accident statistics. Sadly, he reported, the one accident reported so far in 2021 was fatal. In 2020 there were 50 ag aviation accidents, a record low, but 20% of those accidents were fatal. Moore also reported on the recently released 2019 FAA General Aviation (GA) Accident Survey, which once again showed a drop in the ag aviation accident rate since the PAASS Program premiered in 1999. The 2019 accident rate for the industry was 6.87 accidents per 100,000 hours flown. The accident rate before the PAASS Program hit the stage was 9.34 per 100,000 hours. The industry has seen a 25.27% drop in accidents in the 21 years since PAASS began. Moore also mentioned that the accident rate would likely be down further if the program had full participation. For the 2019-2020 PAASS season, 1,593 of the approximately 3,400 ag pilots in the U.S. attended the PAASS Program. Moore stated that the 2019 ag aviation fatal accident rate was 0.69 fatalities per 100,000 hours versus the GA accident rate of 1.02 fatalities per 100,000 hours.
Moore then stated that although the 2020 convention had fewer attendees—790 compared to 1,626 in 2019—it still resulted in $558,000 in net income. Attendee surveys were mostly positive, and no COVID cases were reported by anyone who traveled to the show. Due to COVID-19, Moore reported that 2021’s 100th anniversary show is looking to return to Savannah, rather than the previously scheduled Palm Springs, California, which is still deeply mired in COVID cases. Palm Springs will still be on the convention schedule but not until 2023.
Switching to membership issues, NAAA concluded 2020 with 1,654 members. This is a 16% drop since 2018, which includes a 10% drop in operator members and a 21% drop in pilot members. The start of 2021 shows a 7% decline in members from last year. The total population of operators in the U.S. is 1,560, with an additional 2,028 non-operator pilots. Development is underway for some sort of Professional Aerial Applicator Safety Steward designation, which would require operators and pilots to be members and attend safety and stewardship education programs to qualify. Insurance underwriters and agri-chemical companies could embrace such a program with more competitive rates and usage for individuals earning such a designation.
The next century will also be ripe with opportunity for aerial applicators to not only provide digital aerial images to facilitate making variable rate/precision applications but also to make those applications, Moore said. To support his point, he provided information from the July 2020 issue of CropLife magazine that showed significant projected growth in U.S. ag retailers conducting crop-imaging for precision ag/variable rate purposes. For example, in 2015, 57% of U.S. retailers were conducting aerial imaging services to make prescription maps for variable rate applications. By 2023 aerial imaging services are projected to be provided by 91% of retailers. Similarly, variable rate applications of fertilizers were provided by 69% of retailers in 2015 and are projected to be provided by 92% by 2023. Variable rate pesticide applications were provided by 27% of retailers in 2015 and are projected to be provided by 47% by 2023. Variable rate seed applications were provided by 50% of retailers in 2015 and are projected to be provided by 78% by 2023. Moore reiterated that this is a tremendous opportunity for the aerial application industry to diversify and grow by not only providing the variable rate application services, but the aerial maps needed to prescribe the variable rates to the field.
Convention and Awards: The most important topic discussed was moving the 2021 Ag Aviation Expo from Palm Springs, California, to Savannah, Georgia, due to COVID delays in California and Savannah’s proven record from the 2020 convention. The board approved the move to return to Savannah for the 2021 Ag Aviation Expo. The Convention Committee recommended, and the board approved, working to contract having Savannah host the 2026 NAAA Ag Aviation Expo.
The Convention Committee discussed Kickoff Breakfast ideas that included Hoot Gibson, John Stossel, Eric Mataxas and James Bradley. A decision will be made shortly. The committee also discussed the focus of the General Session, which likely will include a panel of industry veterans reflecting on the 100th anniversary and an ag futurist. The committee discussed future contracted conventions sites as follows: Dec. 6-9, 2021 – Savannah; Dec. 5-8, 2022 – Knoxville, Tennessee; Dec. 4-7, 2023 – Palm Springs; Nov. 18-21, 2024 – Fort Worth, Texas, and amended a previous motion to have Reno, Nevada, host the 2025 and 2028 conventions in November of those years. The committee also discussed Oklahoma City as a future convention site. NAAA tentatively plans to have its October 2022 board meeting in Oklahoma City, which will give the board a chance to look at the city and determine if it could be a future location of the Ag Aviation Expo.
Also discussed were this year’s auction items, which will include a Pratt & Whitney Canada turbine engine and a two-seater, open cockpit Ag-Cat donated by Colorado’s Darrel Mertens. NAAA greatly appreciates both of these donators and all its auction donors.
The Awards Committee reiterated that the deadline to submit nominations for the 2021 NAAA Awards is Sept. 10. The awards nomination form is available at AgAviation.org/awards. It was also stated that 2020 awardees who were unable to make the 2020 convention will be recognized at this year’s awards banquet if they attend it.
Budget & Finance: Mike Rivenbark, immediate past treasurer, delivered the association’s treasurer’s report in place of Treasurer Dwayne O’Brien, who could not attend due to contracting COVID-19. He reported that the total current assets of NAAA equal $5,100,823 as of the end of January 2021. He also presented the 2021-2022 budget, which includes a $114,818 deficit; however, this is due to overestimating expenses and underestimating revenues and includes over $40,000 in depreciation. Roughly $30,000 of the deficit is related to 100th anniversary expenses, including $47,000 that will be spent on public relations to promote the industry to the media and public. Some of these expenses were budgeted in prior years, but expenditures will be occurring this and next fiscal year. The board approved the 2021-2022 budget.
Communications & Public Relations Committee: The committee discussed NAAA’s 100th anniversary communications initiatives, such as the public relations efforts, video, book, etc. The committee identified approximately 30 regional representatives that the media could contact for interviews about the 100th anniversary. Media training sessions will be conducted by former Leadership Training Program instructor and PR professional Steve Powell via Zoom to prepare NAAA’s designated spokespeople for possible media interviews during the industry’s centennial coverage.
The committee also discussed advocacy projects, such as a documentary television show called Impossible Engineering that will air on Discovery’s Science Channel and feature a pilot flying a 1944 Stearman nicknamed “The Beast” for a segment on the Stearman’s role in ag aviation and aerial firefighting.
Governing Documents Committee: The Governing Documents Committee presented a motion that the NAAA Board approved to make Florida’s Natural Orange Juice the official orange juice of NAAA. The committee chairman, Lee Turnquist of Florida, has always been partial to U.S. grown efforts, and Florida’s Natural is a solely U.S. cooperative that only uses Florida grown oranges in its juice. He is a former aerial applicator to Florida’s Natural’s product and has been playfully educating the board about this fact for years. With that said, Chairman Turnquist is also in talks with the Florida cooperative to obtain support in the form of advertising in NAAA’s magazine and sponsoring the 100th anniversary. This is an effort that could result in other agricultural commodity groups supporting NAAA.
Government Relations Committee: Damon Reabe of Wisconsin, the committee chairman, reported that the FAA’s John Attebury provided a report, via Zoom, on several FAA issues, including an issue that has recently presented itself pertaining to fears that presidential TFRs in eastern Maryland, Delaware and other parts of the mid-Atlantic region will halt ag aviation activities. Attebury reported that flying in such TFRs may sometimes be allowed. Air Traffic Control is in charge of these situations, but the Secret Service has a lot to do with it when flights are allowed. There is a FSDO phone number associated with each TFR that may be used to request access to the TFR. If allowed, such instances require the use of a discreet transponder code and continuous communication with Air Traffic Control.
Attebury also discussed EPA greenhouse gas emission regulations recently issued for aviation, stating they will only affect new aircraft models that first come into production starting January 2028. There are several exemptions to these regulations, including exemptions for special use aircraft, and it is believed that agricultural aircraft would be exempt. The FAA will be doing a rulemaking that will bring the EPA’s rule to aircraft certification, so an opportunity for NAAA to comment on the FAA rule will be forthcoming.
Attebury also reported on the FAA tower marking/tower location database rule that NAAA was instrumental in urging Congress to enact. He stated that the FAA rulemaking team is optimistic that a notice for proposed rulemaking will be out for public comment in 2021.
The Government Relations Committee reviewed the FAA’s COVID-19 vaccination rule and reiterated the need to heed the 48-hour no-fly warning after receiving the COVID vaccine due to reported side effects after receiving the vaccination.
The committee discussed the EPA paraquat reregistration effort. Chairman Reabe stated that an abundance of collaboration with NAAA, regulatory agencies, academics, commodity groups and registrants went into this reregistration effort. NAAA was instrumental in facilitating this cooperation, putting the EPA on notice for its poor risk assessment, which underestimated the importance of aerially applying the product and overestimated the risk assigned to the aerial use of the product.
Also mentioned was a recent workshop of government, agri-chemical companies, academia and pesticide applicators on manned and unmanned drift modeling. NAAA made meaningful headway pushing the use of AgDrift Tier 3 inputs and wind-directional buffers, as well as emphasizing that drones need drift and efficacy data since no robust data exists. The workshop participants agreed a report would be out shortly. It will likely state that drones will be great in niche application markets like replacing backpack spraying, but broad applications will likely be questioned.
Insurance and Safety & Federal Aviation Regulations Committee: A common theme throughout many NAAA committees was a discussion about the Knowledge and Skills Ad Hoc Committee and the development of essential information in which ag pilots should be well versed, also referred to as Airman Certification Standards (ACS) for ag pilots. Matt Hovdenes, chairman of this ad hoc committee and president of NAAREF, has done yeoman’s work developing a draft study guide. One proposed goal is to have the ACS used by ag aviation operations’ chief supervisors to administer biennial flight reviews for ag pilots. The FAA has stated that such a program could be run through its FAA Wings program. The PAASS Program would be an opportune format and could count as credit for the ground portion of the knowledge and skills test; a flight review could count for the flight portion. Discussion among these two committees, the Long Range Planning Committee and NAAREF is that insurance rates are increasing. The three NAAA committees and NAAREF would like to see insurance carriers work with the industry to come up with better rates for pilots who take legitimate steps toward more professional aviation safety and conservation stewardship education. This point was pressed by Insurance Committee Chairman and NAAA Vice President Jim Perrin.
Long Range Planning Committee: The Long Range Planning Committee has discussed new resources for the association to pursue to provide steady funding for NAAA’s education, communication and advocacy programs for years. With a 2020 convention that brought in significantly less revenue (and almost didn’t occur) and membership declining, the committee brought a motion to the NAAA Board that was enacted that will charge non-members who attend the Ag Aviation Expo a convention registration fee that will also include the cost of an NAAA membership in their membership category.
Membership Committee: The NAAA Membership Committee recommended and the board passed a motion providing longtime member Fletcher Sharp an honorary NAAA membership. Sharp recently retired from Covington Engines, was a longtime employee of Pratt & Whitney Canada and served on NAAA’s Board as propulsion representative for years.
Museum Committee: Committee Chair Glenn Holloway stated that the National Agricultural Aviation Museum and Hall of Fame in Jackson, Mississippi, plans to do a significant event for the 100th anniversary hosted on one of the last two weekends in August. Several VIPs are on the list to be invited, including the Mississippi ag commissioner. It appears to be a two-day celebration that will be a family-friendly event on Day One with activities and possibly viewing Disney’s Planes. The second day will be geared more toward adults and would be a fundraising event. Chairman Holloway spoke to Jim Hirsch of Air Tractor about the Snow S-2A model aircraft. The S-2A will be at the 2021 Ag Aviation Expo and then go to the museum in Jackson. Pete Jones of Air Repair in Mississippi has donated the working engine and prop for the plane to be exhibited at the convention. A replacement engine and prop will be put on the plane once it is permanently donated to the museum. Jones plans to auction off the actual engine and prop and donate 100% of the auction proceeds to the National Agricultural Aviation Museum. In addition, a cutaway engine is being worked on for the museum that may be on loan to NAAA for the 2021 Ag Aviation Expo.
Precision Agriculture Committee: The newly formed Precision Agriculture Committee, just beginning its second year, adopted the following mission statement: A committee to encompass new technologies pertaining to methods of aerial application and aerial imaging that improve current systems and methods for safely, precisely and effectively applying crop protection products, fertilizers and seeds.
The committee also discussed its goal of fostering the development of an autonomous spray system for ag aircraft. This includes integrating technology like AIMMS, which gives real-time weather based on its onboard meteorological measurement system, into GPS systems. The Precision Agriculture Committee is encouraging allied industry members, such as Aventech, CapstanAg, Ag-Nav, Insero, etc., to work together to integrate their products in addition to integrating the AgDrift atmospheric model into their spray system grouped technology. The committee also discussed ensuring the EPA is educated on all the technologies that measure and model the impact of weather on the potential for spray drift to encourage the EPA to adopt wind direction-based buffer zones. The committee also discussed prospective technologies five to 10 years down the road that will be commonplace as the application industry evolves. One such technology was see-and-spray technology. Although see-and-spray is not an economically viable technology now, it may be in 10 years, so it is one to keep a pulse on now.
Research & Technology Committee: The Research & Technology Committee received an update from the USDA-ARS Aerial Application Technology Research Unit (AATRU). The AATRU’s high-speed wind tunnel will be completed within two months. They are also planning field studies looking at the best application height and boom width to maximize efficacy. Much of the discussion focused on developing new nozzle technology. A University of Nebraska Ph.D. student is conducting research to develop a new nozzle for aerial applications. NAAA representatives also met earlier this year with the AATRU to request they prioritize their projects to focus on developing a new nozzle for aerial applications that reduces fine, that they foster the development of an autonomous aerial sprayer, and that they document the environmental benefits of aerial applications. To further facilitate nozzle development, an Ad Hoc New Nozzle Development Committee was formed. Promotion of the committee in NAAA publications to solicit interest and the submission of ideas for new nozzles and nozzle bodies will be forthcoming.
The committee also discussed creating a repository of aerial application data and substantive aerial research projects already conducted and making it available to NAAA members only through the members-only portion of NAAA’s website. The committee also discussed getting in touch with registrants to release data in their possession that would provide proof of aerial application’s efficacy and safety.
Support Committee: The Support Committee’s Athena education program for aerial application operation’s support staff will focus on dealing with stress. They are also planning a Riverboat event at the 2021 Ag Aviation Expo and announced that their scholarship theme for 2021 is “What role does ag aviation play in producing a local commodity?” That information will be made available soon on the NAAA website and in NAAA publications.
That is a summary of the many ideas discussed at NAAA’s spring board meeting. Much should be said complimenting NAAA’s board members for their devotion to the industry and their travels in the past year during the pandemic to plan and execute programs for the sole betterment of the agricultural aviation industry as it enters its second century.