Darrin Pluhar is an interesting combination of roots and wings, literally. Growing up on family land in Montana’s Garfield County, near Rock Springs, he learned to love the ground, but his father also inspired him to love the air.
His father, Arthur, learned how to fly during his four years of service in the Army Air Forces during World War II. One thing led to another after he returned home to Montana, and for several years, Arthur worked as an aerial applicator in Garfield County instilling a love of farming and aviation in his sons.
Pluhar’s older brother, Dennis, followed in his father’s footsteps and became an aerial applicator, but when he graduated high school in 1986, the depressed farming economy didn’t present agriculture as a favorable career. He went off to Montana State University with the goal of becoming a civil engineer.
“It was kind of a roundabout way that I got involved in aerial application. My dad did it and my brother did it. In the mid-1980s, agriculture was kind of tough, so I was searching for an alternative career, but you always come back to where your heart is,” he stated.
Pluhar shifted his career goals and ended up attending the University of Minnesota-Crookston, where he graduated with an associate’s degree in agriculture aviation in 1989. At that point, Pluhar returned home and joined his brother’s aerial application business, but times got tough. In the mid-1990s, the Conservation Reserve Program was gobbling up farmland across eastern Montana and with less crop acres came less of a demand for crop dusters.
Dennis no longer had enough work to run two airplanes in his business, so Pluhar decided to look outside the family business. Thankfully he didn’t have to look too far because just to the southeast of where he grew up, in Ekalaka, Mont., an aerial application business was for sale. He jumped at the chance, relocated, and in 2020 he will be entering his 32nd season as an aerial applicator.
Pluhar treats mainly winter and spring wheat, alfalfa, fallow and pasture, plus some corn and safflower during a season that runs April through October. In addition to Montana, he is also licensed in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Texas, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Because Montana’s application season can be slow in July and August, this has allowed him to help other operators service a wide variety of crops in those states over the years.
Taking his love for the industry all the way to a leadership position, Pluhar was elected president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) in 2020. Headquartered in Alexandria, Va., with a close proximity to Capitol Hill, the organization aims to advocate for an industry that is constantly battling public scrutiny.
“You have to keep in touch with those lawmakers and make them aware of what is actually going on and the importance of our industry,” he pointed out.
As president of the NAAA, Pluhar hopes he can use his voice to shed a positive and insightful eye onto the industry of agricultural aviation. Among other issues, aerial applicators are constantly battling product registration and for aerial application to remain on the label.
The agriculture aviation industry treats about 28 percent of all U.S. cropland, so aerial application plays a significant role in today’s agricultural economy. In addition, Pluhar also says there are several benefits to the method. For one, applying crop protection products from above means you don’t have to actually drive through the crop, which can cause yield loss and soil compaction. Further, driving through a crop has the potential of expanding disease problems.
“Regardless of the pest, timing is always critical, and aerial application can do more in less time,” he explained.
Pluhar went on to say that one of the most misunderstood principles of aerial application is how thorough coverage of the product on the crop can still be achieved, even though the process uses less water as carrier compared to other forms of applications. Due to the aerodynamics of the aircraft, which causes the air to push the spray down into the crop, and the atomization of the spray into the most effective droplet spectrum for a given situation, not as much water carrier is required to enhance the effectiveness of the product.
“Water doesn’t necessarily ensure coverage and good coverage doesn’t necessarily require water. Unfortunately, even though there are many different scientific and university studies that back this premise up, the concept is still misunderstood, ” Pluhar stated.
Boiled down, any form of chemical application is about crop protection. Despite negative connotations perceived by mainstream media outlets, the world needs agriculture and Pluhar hopes people never lose appreciation for everything that goes into high-production agriculture.
Like any agriculturalist, flying isn’t just a job for Pluhar, it is a way of life.
“I just like being a part of agriculture and helping the farmers and ranchers produce the safest, most abundant and most economical food in the world,” he concluded.