Farming from the air

Fisher Ag Services has served the agriculture community for over 40 years

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CARDINGTON, Ohio — Butch Fisher remembers taking his first flight lesson in a small Cessna 140 at age 14. The plane was owned by his uncle, who flew in the military, and his father, who was “going to learn to fly, but never did,” explained Butch.

Fisher would later buy the plane and go on to get his private and commercial pilot licenses. Now, with a little more than 30,000 hours of flight under his belt — or wing — Fisher continues to pass on the tradition of flight to his grandchildren, as well as others who want to learn the tricks of the trade that is aerial application.

Butch Fisher with Cessna 140
Butch Fisher, of Fisher Ag Services, Cardington, Ohio, stands next to the Cessna 140 that started it all. (Catie Noyes photos)

Aerial application

In the early days, aerial application was more commonly referred to as crop dusting, because of its use of mostly dry chemicals and insecticides, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association. Today, aerial applicators handle mostly liquid products, as well as seed and other nutrients to aid in modern agricultural practices.

Fisher Ag

Growing up as a “farm boy,” Fisher knew he wanted to find a way to combine his love for agriculture with his passion for flying. He launched Fisher Ag Services, in Cardington, with a small helicopter in 1975.

“By 1980, I finally decided that the airplanes were a little more efficient, a little more economical to operate and own, and we have been with fixed wing aircraft ever since,” said Fisher. Fisher Ag Services currently operates a fleet of six aircraft with four full-time pilots, as well as a couple fill-in pilots during the busy season.

“Our pilots are also mechanics,” said Fisher, providing maintenance to planes during the off season from October to March. “It keeps everyone busy,” he said. Fisher’s fleet includes two Air Tractor 602 (AT-602) planes, an AT-504, which features a dual cockpit and is mostly used for training, and an AT-802, which is the largest single engine, production aircraft built in the world.

Fisher Ag Sprayer
Fisher Ag Services offers a range of agricultural services, and covers around 200,000 acres a year. Applicators can cover as much as 200 acres per hour.

Scope of operation

Fisher Ag serves about half of Ohio, covering a 16- to 18-county area. According to the NAAA, “Aerial application is often the safest, fastest and most efficient, and most economical way to get the job done.”

“We cover about 200,000 acres per year and we can do as much as 200 acres per hour, depending on the field,” said Fisher. The season kicks off in late March and typically runs through the end of September with a fall seeding.

Services

Aerial application allows producers to treat their fields or apply seed when their ground equipment might not be able to get in the field. Aerial application also aids in the treatment of crops in a timely manner when disease and pests threaten crop life. Fisher Ag Services offers application services of both liquid and dry fertilizers, topdressing, cover crop and other seeding, as well as plant health applications of fungicides and insecticides.

Fisher Ag spreader

Technology

Eighty percent of the business is contracted through cooperatives, elevators and local agronomists. All other jobs are direct work with farmers who seek out Fisher’s services. And 98 percent of the work orders that come in are through Fisher Ag Service’s website, which allows users to map their fields, enter application rates and seed types and place an order.

In the heat of the season, Fisher said he employs the help of four to five college interns to prepare work orders and provide them to the pilots and loaders. “In the last 10 years, (GPS) has been a big advancement in accuracy,” said Fisher. All the airplanes are equipped with GPS systems and flow control, which helps Fisher Ag services record spray patterns and application amounts as well as control drift.

“Back in the old days, someone stood in the fields and placed a white flag wherever the sprayer had left off,” said Fisher. “You depended on the people on the ground.” Now GPS allows this to happen more efficiently. “It took seven operators and seven planes to do what I can do now with just one,” said Fisher, describing the efficiency and advancements in technology throughout the years.

Next generation

In the early ’70s, when Fisher started, there were around 40 operators in Ohio. In the late ’90s, that number dropped to around four, but has slowly climbed to around 10, he explained. Fifty to 60 percent of ag operators are 50 or older, said Fisher, which means, he added, there is going to be a big need for young pilots in both agriculture and general aviation.

Zach Haskins, of Waldo, is in his third year working for Fisher Ag Services. He grew up working on his family’s farm in Chatfield, Ohio, but took a break from the family farm to study aviation at Tiffin Air in 2011. In 2012, Haskins quit farming completely to work for Fisher Ag Services. “I always did enjoy farming,” he said, but added, “I just like to fly.”

Working for Fisher Ag Services “is a good blend of the two,” he said. Haskins took his first official solo flight with the company in 2014. Haskins is one of two younger pilots Fisher has hired and trained, and he hopes the younger generation will continue to take interest in aviation.

Fisher Ag Building
Fisher Ag Services is located at 4579 Mt Gilead-Cardington Road (or Township Road 126), Cardington, Ohio.

Gearing up or slowing down?

As the busy season approaches, Fisher is more than ready to get back in the plane and get back to work. “Right now I do most of the hauling. The other pilots joke that I hog the work,” he said. “But eventually I’ll slow down.”

And when he does, that original little Cessna 140, which he keeps in the hangar among the rest of his fleet, will still be there for leisurely flights with the grandchildren.

 

Aerial aviation tidbits

  • The term “crop dusters” was coined because of the use of dry chemicals in early agricultural aviation practices. Today, aerial applicators cover a wide range of dry and liquid chemical applications as well cover crops and seeds.
  • An airplane or helicopter can accomplish more in one hour than ground equipment can in one day.
  • According to the NAAA, there are approximately 2,700 professional aerial application operators and pilots in the U.S. and approximately 1,350 aerial application businesses.
  • Aerial application operations are located in 46 states — all but Alaska, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
  • There are 10 aerial applicator businesses in Ohio.
  • Aerial application accounts for up to one-quarter of the delivery of crop production products in American agriculture.
  • Organic farmers use aerial applications of approved organic pesticides almost daily to prevent any infestations from starting.
  • Aircraft range in price from $100,000 to $1.4 million.
  • In addition to agricultural aviation, the industry provides firefighting and public health application services to combat mosquitoes.
  • Source: National Agricultural Aviation AssociationThe term “crop dusters” was coined because of the use of dry chemicals in early agricultural aviation practices. Today, aerial applicators cover a wide range of dry and liquid chemical applications as well cover crops and seeds.
  • An airplane or helicopter can accomplish more in one hour than ground equipment can in one day.
  • According to the NAAA, there are approximately 2,700 professional aerial application operators and pilots in the U.S. and approximately 1,350 aerial application businesses.
  • Aerial application operations are located in 46 states — all but Alaska, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
  • There are 10 aerial applicator businesses in Ohio.
  • Aerial application accounts for up to one-quarter of the delivery of crop production products in American agriculture.
  • Organic farmers use aerial applications of approved organic pesticides almost daily to prevent any infestations from starting.
  • Aircraft range in price from $100,000 to $1.4 million.
  • In addition to agricultural aviation, the industry provides firefighting and public health application services to combat mosquitoes.

Source: National Agricultural Aviation Association

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Catie Noyes lives in Ashland County and earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture communications from The Ohio State University. She enjoys photography, softball and sharing stories about agriculture. Formerly a reporter for the Farm and Dairy, Catie is now pursuing her master's degree in education.

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