“We used to be crop-dusters,” says Doug Odom, Odom’s Flying Service founder. “Then they gave us a new name in the late ’80s.”
That new name is aerial applicator. The term applies to agriculture pilots who fly at low altitudes over fields. Small aircraft apply fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers and broadcast crop seed. These pilots have long been a critical component of high-yield agriculture.
Planes allow for fast and efficient application. Studies have shown aerial application to be four times as productive as other methods. Planes can cover 1,800 acres in 12 hours, as opposed to the 850 acres ground-application methods can cover during the same time.
There are additional benefits, particularly when wet soil conditions, rolling terrain or dense foliage prevent the use of other methods. Treating from above also limits crop disruption, often resulting in higher yields. Aerial application does not cause soil compaction, thus preventing soil runoff and prolonging the productive life of a field.
According to the National Agricultural Aviation Association, about 1,560 aerial application businesses and 3,400 ag pilots fly in 45 states. The Odom family, operating in Santa Rosa County for more than four decades, runs the area’s only remaining business of its kind.
“At one time, there were seven of us here,” Doug says of the industry that once flourished in the Panhandle region. “And everybody had anywhere from one to four airplanes each. You could wake up here on any given morning, and it sounded like a beehive. There were airplanes flying, and you could hear them everywhere.”
Those other businesses are gone. Before recently cutting back on his flying time, Doug was the oldest active ag pilot in the state. Through the years, he worked with his son Reggie, who managed the business that grew to four planes at its peak.
“He’s been flying since ’69, and he started crop-dusting in 1972,” Reggie says of his father. “He’s seen a lot of changes.”
The biggest shifts are a result of changes in farming. With fewer small farms in the region, the need for the traditional crop-duster diminished. Larger farms can buy new ground-application equipment, limiting the need for ag pilots.
“When my dad started, he had a Rolodex full of farmers,” Reggie says. “I think at one time, we had 170 farmers we flew for. Now it’s a handful. Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, we would spray 200,000 to 250,000 acres right here in this one county. Now, it’s gone from that number down to like 40,000 or 50,000 acres a year.”
Reggie recalls the season would start as early as February, with the Odoms applying weed killer and fertilizer on wheat. They also applied fertilizer to corn fields. Next was spreading the preemergent weed killer. Thirty days after the crops come up, they started spraying to control weeds, pests and diseases. This continued through late October.
“That’s normally when we were through in this county,” Reggie says. “Then we were breaking down our airplanes and equipment, getting ready because February would be here again before you knew it.”
Now, the classic crop-duster business model has changed with other opportunities. Reggie says forestry work or seasonal work in other parts of the country are mainstays for many applicators in today’s market.
“The need is still here,” he says, “but you have to go do pine tree work. And you go on the corn run most of the time, or you go on the sugar cane and vegetable runs during the wintertime, which is in South Florida, Louisiana, Texas or California. And then you go from there to the Midwest, flying the corn run and soybeans, or you go to the Northwest to do vegetable work.”
Even as Doug’s flying time decreased and the local industry changed, the business has continued to provide services to farmers in the county and beyond under Reggie’s management. Through the years, other pilots have learned the ropes and honed their skills by working with the Odoms.
“We have helped a lot of ag pilots who are still flying in different areas,” Reggie says. “They’ve come out of here. So, we’re proud of that. We’ve been able to help keep the industry going.”
The Odoms know a thing or two about what it takes to keep this type of business in operation, and it goes far beyond building the airstrip, getting an airplane and going to work.
Reggie says maps and directing pilots where to go, making all the recipes for the chemicals, keeping the customers happy, and keeping up with the latest state and Environmental Protection Agency guidelines and regulations have all been key parts of the business.
Then, there are the additional skills and decision-making needed in flight.
“You’ve got to know your wind directions and velocities,” Reggie says. “And temperature inversions have a lot to do with different chemicals. You may spray this chemical in the morning, and in the afternoon, you might not want to spray that chemical because the heat inversions might cause it to drift on you. An aerial applicator has got to be a weatherman, a chemist, a pilot and a public relations guy all in one.”
With Doug’s flying days behind him, the Odoms have decided to sell their remaining plane and leave the business after this season. However, their landing strip and facilities will remain available to other pilots.
“The work is different, but the opportunity is there,” Reggie says of the industry’s future. “And we need more aerial applicators, more young people, to get into the business.”
Doug and Reggie have weathered the seasons and the changes in this business. The elder Odom appreciates having his son by his side. He is also keenly aware of the rarity of his longevity in the industry.
“He’s been in it since I’ve been in it,” Doug says of Reggie. “He’s seen every day what I’ve done. Some of it’s been good, some of it’s been bad. I’m fortunate to have lived through these times. The crop-duster’s normal life is only 20 years. That’s what the statistics say. So, I’ve done my time. I did it for over 40 years.”
The Next Generation
If Marcus Crutchfield is any indication, the future of aerial application is in good hands. After working part-time as a farmhand at Odom’s Flying Service, he discovered a love for flying and became fascinated with the business.
“A guy who was flying at the time came over here to do some work,” Marcus recalls. “I got to watch and talk to him, and I was like, ‘Man, this is really cool.’ He got me in touch with an instructor who flew ag and was a very good guy. He took me under his wing and helped me get started, and he kind of showed me the ropes.”
After taking lessons to acquire more air time, Marcus bought his own plane, a 1939 J-3 Cub.
“I flew it every day,” he says. “I’d get to work early, and I’d fly an hour in the morning and then an hour in the afternoon. I tried to build as much time as I could. I flew that joker 200 hours in a year. I stayed at it as hard as I could and stayed committed to my training.”
Getting to where Marcus is now was not quick or easy, but this young pilot was willing to put in the work.
“I got my commercial pilot’s license,” he says. “I got my pesticide applicator’s license for Florida and Alabama. It’s a drawn-out, long process. It’s not something to jump right into. But, you know, when you have a goal that you want to meet, you do what it takes. So, that’s what I did. I set out after it, and now, here we are.”
After earning his commercial license in 2021, Marcus flew for the Odoms in 2022. He now works for Gentry’s Flying Service in Prattville but often flies out of Odom’s Flying Service’s field in Jay.
Gentry Smith owns Gentry’s, which has been in business for 31 years. The company manages the operation of three planes that cover a seven-county area and flies to other areas to do seasonal work.
Marcus considers himself lucky to have had the support of industry veterans in his quest to become an ag pilot.
“I flew for Reggie Odom all last year and had a great first year,” he says. “Reggie’s been very good to me. I’m very blessed to have the mentors that I do. I have a lot of people that I can talk to if I get in a pickle. I can call and ask, ‘What would you do here?’ or ‘What do you think?’ It’s a fun journey.”
The journey is just beginning for Marcus. He is committed to continuing the tradition of an industry that has been a part of Northwest Florida’s agricultural landscape for generations.
August 3, 2021, was the 100th anniversary of the first documented use of an aircraft for aerial application. To commemorate the milestone, the National Agricultural Aviation Association donated to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum a life-sized, fully functional replica of Dusty Crophopper, the hero of Disney’s animated films “Planes” and “Planes: Fire and Rescue.”