Book Excerpt: 'The Spray King of the West'

Book Excerpt: 'The Spray King of the West'

Agricultural plane test-spraying Kansas wheat for drift hazards. Image courtesy of the David Vail. 

Agricultural plane test-spraying Kansas wheat for drift hazards. Image courtesy of the David Vail. 

This is a guest post by David D. Vail, an assistant professor of agricultural and environmental history at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. You can read all about the history of aerial spraying in David’s new book, Chemical Lands: Pesticides, Aerial Spraying, and Health in North America’s Grasslands since 1945 (University of Alabama Press, 2018). 

This post is adapted from Chapter 3, “Spraying the Airplane Way,” pp 55-58.

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Crop dusting had begun in the south and eastern United States during the 1920s. In the Great Plains after World War II, however, many pilots and farmers challenged indiscriminate application and spraying errors. They emphasized accuracy in chemical dosage and dispersal, arguing that an ecological knowledge of the land should accompany an understanding of mixture rates, spraying ratios, and toxicity measurements. Spray pilots’ reputations could not risk the kinds of mass sprayings that occurred in other regions of the country. The combinations of pasturelands, rangelands, and croplands also required aerial operators and growers to work together to maintain an intimate knowledge of place and the land. The variety of crops, geography, environmental conditions, and communities in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and the Dakotas required a pilot’s complete attention because different states meant different spraying methods, pests, and chemical mixtures.

Spray planes in Donald Pratt’s P-T Air Service fleet. Pratt became well-known for his aerial and chemical training schools for Great Plains Ag pilots. Courtesy of Morse Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Kansas State University.

Spray planes in Donald Pratt’s P-T Air Service fleet. Pratt became well-known for his aerial and chemical training schools for Great Plains Ag pilots. Courtesy of Morse Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Kansas State University.

One of the first steps in the emerging practitioner science of aerial application came in Hays, Kansas, with Donald E. Pratt and the P-T Air Service. Pratt started building his crop spraying operation in 1946 by emphasizing both his aeronautical and chemical expertise. He learned as much as he could about the newest agricultural chemicals on the market, which were DDT and 2,4D at the time. Next, Pratt met with state entomologists and weed supervisors to increase his understanding of crop-pest interactions. Then he purchased ten two thousand-gallon tanker trucks, hired a ground crew, and went to work. In just two years, Pratt had spraying contracts with a majority of western Kansas wheat farmers. His mobile arsenal included a combination of ground and aerial sprayers that could treat more than seven thousand acres in one morning.

Considered the “Spray King of the West” by many of his contemporaries, Pratt established a western Kansas aerial spray tradition that combined equipment accuracy and spraying education with a savvy business plan. In a relatively short time, as Ag pilot Dick Reade of Missouri recalled, Pratt “had contracted for virtually all of the wheat land in western Kansas . . . mostly applying 2,4-D. He had everything in that country tied up and it was really quite amazing how well we managed to get the jobs done.”

Early spraying configuration recommendations for Ag pilots. Reprinted from “How to Spray the Aircraft Way: A Guide for Farmers and Spray-Plane Pilots,” Farmer’s Bulletin No. 2062 (Washington, DC: GPO: June 1954), 13.

Early spraying configuration recommendations for Ag pilots. Reprinted from “How to Spray the Aircraft Way: A Guide for Farmers and Spray-Plane Pilots,” Farmer’s Bulletin No. 2062 (Washington, DC: GPO: June 1954), 13.

To work for Pratt, pilots had to attend his summer clinic. This two-week spraying school at P-T Air taught aerial applicators the calculation of chemical dosages, spraying techniques (such as swath management), and the scientific intricacies of pest management. After passing Pratt’s examinations, the newly minted aerial applicators could join his crew. According to Aviation Week, Pratt’s operation typically included “four flagmen, two planes and four pilots, two tank trailers and drivers, and station wagon with supervisor.” While pilots sprayed one field, aerial application instructors directed extra flagmen from field to field, preparing for the next aerial application.

Grassland Ag pilots and weed scientists often worked together to address agricultural perils involved with pesticides and mitigate risks. In this late 1950s photograph, Dodge City spray pilot Roy Mahon can be seen in discussion with local weed supervisor Ralph Strum, who stands on the plane’s wing. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society.

Grassland Ag pilots and weed scientists often worked together to address agricultural perils involved with pesticides and mitigate risks. In this late 1950s photograph, Dodge City spray pilot Roy Mahon can be seen in discussion with local weed supervisor Ralph Strum, who stands on the plane’s wing. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society.

Grassland pilots like Pratt claimed that successful aerial application resulted from a comprehensive chemical and agricultural expertise. They embraced relationships with experiment station personnel, university scientists, and state policymakers. Many sought to learn the science behind chemical application and the risks involved in the process. Pilots also wondered about plant and insect resistance. Their desire to connect professionalism to risk management inspired many practitioners in the region to organize local conferences. Many meetings, such as the aerial spraying conference held in 1949 at Kansas State Agricultural College, emphasized studying the toxicity on various crops and pests, researching aerial deployment techniques, and discussing how to work with landowners and lawmakers.

As they learned more, these practitioners of pesticides developed an environmental ethic that recognized both the economic benefits of pesticides and the short term and longer term agricultural health effects that chemicals had upon production field soils, crops, livestock, and communities.

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