About 3,000 pilots, most in their 50s and 60s, still take part in the storied business of crop dusting. In the past, the demand for their services was greater. As costs of equipment, training, safety compliance and insurance rise, however, crop-dusting businesses find their profit margins squeezed, and farmers are finding more economical ways to apply needed fertilizers and pesticides to their crops. The business can still be rewarding for experienced and energetic pilots.
Crop dusting, also known as aerial application, follows a regular schedule. Work can be steady and profitable in the growing season, while during winter there is little to do except equipment maintenance and marketing. The feast-or-famine nature of the business, as well as high startup costs, are discouraging many prospects from entering or training for the field.
Aerial application involves flying low and releasing seeds, fertilizers or pesticides over large fields of crops, which are more economical to treat from the air than by using combines, tractors and machinery on the ground. Pilots must be trained in aeronautics, small-aircraft handling, hazardous materials and basic meteorology.
Most crop dusters work as independent contractors for small operations working out of rural airports. Others are small business owners, working solo or with a few partners. Their earnings depend on local demand, weather conditions, the size of the acreages they cover, and any costs which they have to bear such as fuel, maintenance and insurance. The net income varies widely from one region of the country to the next. AviationSalaries.com gives a nationwide average of $12 to $20 per hour for pilots and yealry earnings of about $25,000 for owner-operators.
Many crop dusters also moonlight as pilots for fire-fighting operations, insect-control agencies, surveying companies or as pilots for banner-advertising flights. Some supplement their income as farmers or work in other agricultural industries in addition to their flying business.
Training and mentoring younger pilots is an important part of the job. Crop dusters can earn extra income as licensed single-engine instructors. They teach the basics of handling chemicals, fueling and maintaining airplanes and flying patterns at a hazardously low altitude. Although job openings are limited, as only a small fleet of crop dusters is required to cover a fairly wide region, crop dusting competes for pilots with commercial and cargo airlines, who pay more and require fewer work hours. As a result, the crop dusting industry is going through a crisis at the start of the 21st century as the average age of pilots increases and fewer younger pilots are gaining the experience needed for the job.