It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's More Cover Crops!

Tuesday, September 6, was a big day for me, and our office. For the eighth year running, we were up close and personal with three “Air Tractors” – our cover crop planes!

FisherAg, from Mt. Gilead, Ohio, has helped with the Holmes County aerial cover crop program since the beginning. This year, due to the 2181 acres enrolled, we needed three of these incredible machines to get the job done. Bu,t they managed to finish in around 11 hours, before heading south to Coshocton County and working until dark on their acres.

The day started early, with the ground crew, planes, and soil and water staff arriving at Millersburg airport around 6:30 am. Missing from the action was one of the more important elements to a successful fly-on: an authentic Holmes County breakfast. The doughnuts were late getting there, but they  are one of the reasons we think these guys keep showing up, year after year!

After the planes and pilots fueled up (with either jet fuel or coffee), they began flying on oats. Only one grain buggy of oats was needed, and the same with each of the barley and rye. However, our oats/rye mix was the most popular by far, and thanks to Jason Schuch from Sweet Breeze Farms, we had two semis (over 120,000 pounds) to empty over the rest of the day.

Another cog in this well-oiled machine is Mike Fair: his donation of a tractor and auger to unload the semis into the specialized plane-loading grain buggies have been a huge help over the years.

Because of their years in the air, and their familiarity with our program, the pilots and ground crew have their motions down to an art. Once a plane returns to the airport, a driver and one of his assistants are waiting on the taxiway. The planes make some pretty tight turns, and nose it in exactly to the area where the grain buggy is waiting.

What’s special about these wagons are that they also come equipped with several hundred gallon reservoirs for the fuel. By the time the plane has stopped, the driver is already maneuvering the nozzle from the grain wagon over the nose of the plane, where they’ll load the seed. The pilot has already signaled whether or not he needs refueled- If not, then a runner hops up to focus on loading the grain, cleaning off the windshield, and handing over drinks and food to keep the pilot from having to get down.

The pilots usually have to get down for only one reason—and even for those “calls of nature” it’s just once or twice during the day. After 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of seed have been transferred to the plane (each plane has a different capacity), the plane heads back out. They only need, on average, 5 to 6 minutes of groundtime to get everything in order for the next round, but that’s because the ground crew has about ten minutes between planes to get things prepped for the next fill-up. They had enough of their own help this year, but in past years, our staff has been able to be more hands on during the process.

This year, my self-appointed job was to make sure we got as much documented as possible- And as I got introduced to the ground crew, they commented how they knew I hadn’t been on staff for long: “It’s always the new people taking all the pictures!” However, it isn’t just new people who enjoy this day, and the thrill of being up close and personal with the planes. It’s also exciting for the community, who come and go from the airport all day.

Most people want to know if we can tell them when the plane is going over a certain field, so they can see the actual fly on (Sorry, but we don’t really know either!). Of course, we know that the noise can be a nuisance to some people, and we’re prepared for the phone calls from folks who are worried about what’s coming out of the plane. But this is a program that despite the months of planning and coordination, chasing down paperwork, and worry about the weather, is a huge demonstration of the agricultural community’s commitment to building soil health, preventing erosion, and maintaining our water resources; therefore, our office is very proud to support it, and hope for as good a program next year!

Karen is the most recent addition to the Holmes SWCD staff.  Since joining the staff in January 2016, she has delved into the cover crop program, soil testing, nutrient recommendations, nutrient trading programs, and water sampling.  A 2009 graduate of Miami University’s Western College program with a Bachelor of Philosophy in environmental studies, she has worked in a variety of fields in southern Ohio, California, and Colorado.  She was most recently employed with the Farm Service Agency in Hamilton, Ohio, but is happy to return home and assist the Holmes community in agricultural and conservation pursuits.  Karen can be reached at 330-674-2811 or