Fly-By Farming

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Crabbe Aviation

Matt Crabbe applying treatment to a local farm.

Combining expert skill with new technology allows for precision aerial application.

As a specialist in aerial application (or “crop dusting,” as lay people call it), Matt Crabbe of Crabbe Aviation in Mechanicsville has spent decades of his life taking in a bird’s eye view of the state’s agriculture. If you’re imagining an old-fashioned open cockpit plane with a goggles-clad aviator at the controls, however, the reality is considerably more 21st century. With a fleet of three specialized planes and a helicopter, Crabbe and his team of pilots and ground-support crew cover the Mid-Atlantic region’s farmlands and forests with a wide range of services, from fertilization to fire suppression. 

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Crabbe Aviation

Matt Crabbe of Crabbe Aviation.

Armed with on-board weather radar, variable rate flow controllers, and a precision GPS navigation system, Crabbe and his team can treat an insect infestation or seed a cover crop “within an inch of where we are supposed to be,” says Crabbe. In a single day they manage work that, with ground equipment, might take a week to do. “The precision approach is what growers are seeking,” he says. “It’s all about being efficient, saving you time and money, not wasting products.”

For all that his airplanes are million-dollar pieces of equipment, they are hardly luxury flying machines. The cockpits are cramped and utilitarian—though at least these days equipped with air conditioning, which is an improvement on Crabbe’s early days in the business. And to be qualified to work in one, even if you are already a trained pilot, requires going through a lengthy apprenticeship. “You can’t just put someone in these aircraft and let them go,” says Crabbe. “It takes about five years to become a decent enough pilot to be able to work on your own.”

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Crabbe Aviation

Inside the cockpit of a farming plane.

It’s incredibly exacting work, demanding continuous training for licensing, safety, and new technologies, precision flying, and undistracted focus on days that, during the busy growing season, can each run 12 to 15 hours and include as many as 45 landings and takeoffs. “It is not a job, it is a lifestyle—you have to really like to fly, and you have to really like to work. You are on your ‘A’ game all day long,” Crabbe says.  

With suburban sprawl and subdivisions pushing into farmlands, the work has only gotten more demanding. “We take a lot of safety measures,” says Crabbe. There are some jobs so exacting that he’ll only trust himself to handle them. “It needs to be 100 percent,” he says. “There is no take-back.” 

The challenges to Crabbe’s work can include the public. Sometimes, homeowners newly resettled from city locales will grow suspicious of the low-flying airplanes and call the authorities. (To head off this problem, Crabbe and his team give advance notice to local police and emergency services that they’ll be working in the neighborhood.) Other times, despite the best efforts of Crabbe’s ground crew, overly enthusiastic photographers and videographers will plant themselves too close to the action—even sometimes in the middle of a field being treated—forcing Crabbe’s crew to abort the job for safety reasons, at considerable cost in time and resources. “We just want people to understand we are professionals,” says Crabbe, “doing a job that is a needed part of our food production system.” 

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Crabbe Aviation

Matt Crabbe at work helping local farmers.

This article originally appeared in our October 2020  issue.

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