Fred Meise: Crop duster extraordinaire

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MOSES LAKE — Fred Meise is the owner of NorthWest Ag Service, an aerial and land application company that provides crop protection in the Columbia Basin.

“I purchased the business in 2005. It was originally called Moses Lake Air Service when Max Ott started the company back in 1942,” Meise said. “The business changed hands a few times before I bought it. I changed the name of the company four years ago after I purchased Odessa Air Service from Wilbur-Ellis… made it easier advertising-wise.”

Moses Lake is home base for NorthWest Ag Service, but Meise and his three other pilots service Odessa, Coulee City, Hartline, Davenport and Ritzville.

Meise runs four planes out of Moses Lake. He and his crew service 400,000 to 500,000 acres per year applying dry fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide and fungicides from the air and on the ground.

“We start in the spring putting fertilizer and herbicide on wheat. From the end of May through June we do potatoes, spraying every 10 to 14 days,” Meise said. “The advantage of using an airplane is we can do a circle (approximately 130 acres) in 45 minutes to an hour, leave no tracks and don’t have to manage the irrigation water like you do from a ground rig. You have to shut off the water, otherwise the rig will tear up the ground and leave it muddy.”

Meise got his passion for flying at a young age and says he’s always wanted to be a crop duster.

“I grew up in Washtucna and as a kid out riding my bicycle I’d stop and watch the crop duster and I’d tell myself I was going to do that when I grew up,” Meise said. “I went on a field trip to Big Bend Community College my senior year for career day and found out they had a commercial pilot program and enrolled. Three years later I had earned my aircraft mechanic’s license and my commercial/instrument ratings. After that I got a job in Ephrata loading spray planes, which helped me learn the chemical side of the business. I ended up buying a spray plane a couple years later and began the long road of learning how to become a responsible aerial applicator.”

Meise said he enjoys his line of employment. He and his crew often work seven days a week from March through the first of October, but then pretty much have a lot of free time after the winter maintenance on the aircrafts is done.

Through the years Meise has heard countless comments about the aerial spraying occupation being a dying business. Not so, he says.

“I think we’re doing as many acres as always, if not more. The chemical movement when organic first came in made me a little nervous but we spray organic spuds maybe once a week now.”

From March through the end of May Meise and his crew spray herbicides, but once the temperature warms up they spray insecticides and fungicides.

“Farmers get a lot of stripe rust in the dryland wheat right now. It’ll show up overnight so we’ll fly over and take care of it. It can be done by ground application, but it tracks up the wheat and knocks it down,” Meise said. “We’re putting fungicide on the potatoes to prevent late blight, which can take a circle out in a day. It melts it and turns the spuds to mush.”

From an outsider’s point of view crop duster pilots seem like real daredevils in the cockpit. But Meise says that’s not the case.

“It may look that way from the road when we are flying three to four feet off the ground at 150 to 160 mph, but these planes are designed for what we do. All of my planes have turbine engines, which are very reliable and are GPS guided and cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1.3 million.”

Pilots, Meise said, are required to have 40 hours of recertification every five years. Each fall the Pacific Northwest Aerial Applicators put on a recertification clinic in Coeur d’Alene and conduct classes on pesticides and airplane safety. The Washington State Department of Agriculture and the Federal Aviation Administration govern Ag pilots, but the biggest governing agency, Meise says, is his insurance company.

“You never want to have drift problems with application or you could lose your insurance. At times I’ve had to suspend application because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction and what I was spraying could’ve drifted on to other crops in the area, people outside or onto other farmer’s homes.”

Meise is married and has three children. His wife Darla is the company bookkeeper. His oldest son Walter just graduated high school and will be attending Washington State University to study agronomy. His other son Weston will be a senior next year. Both are learning to fly.

“Weston has had the flying bug since he was a kid. He wants to get his commercial license so he can start spraying,” Meise said. “My daughter is 8 years old and is too young to know what she wants to do.”

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