Those who have been to a presentation of mine in recent years have probably seen one of my many aerial photos of somewhere in Fond du Lac County. Sometimes I show them to enforce an agronomic principle, other times it may simply be to get a laugh at the expense of some poor soul’s malfunctioning corn planter, which becomes oh so noticeable from the air.

Few things fascinate me more than looking down on the landscape from the air. I don’t fly much commercially, but when the occasion arises I always pick a window seat and become greatly aggravated when clouds get in the way of my view.

Many years ago one of our local fertilizer dealers invited me to fly around the county with him to get a birds-eye view of crop conditions. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m sure my response was a bevy of questions along the lines of: How big is the plane? When was the last engine oil change? Are plastic-lined paper bags provided or should I bring my own?

Harry_6-30-10_2To be sure, there was initial trepidation on my part, but there was manhood at stake so I finally accepted the invitation. The plane was small…real small. There was barely room for the box of paper bags and Bible I’d brought along. I didn’t pray that we wouldn’t crash; rather, I prayed that when we went down it would be in an alfalfa field. It just didn’t seem right to cash-out amidst soybeans.

The plane rumbled down the runway and much to my amazement eventually went airborne. My anxiety was soon overcome by the view and I pulled out my trusty camera and started shooting pictures of the 35mm slide vintage. My stomach cooperated except for one hard right turn. Fortunately, it recovered.

I don’t recall exactly, but I’d guess we were in the air for about an hour. The time passed-by quickly; however, there was still the landing to negotiate. As we approached the runway, my mind wandered to thoughts of tire pressure and brake maintenance. Alas, we landed safely and I thanked my pilot for a great experience.

Nearly twenty years passed and a shift to digital photography took place before I would fly the county again. This time it was a recently retired member of my church. He decided to get a pilot’s license as a partial means to fill time in his pension years. With newly minted license in hand, he was soliciting passengers for seat 1B. I don’t think I was the first to sign-on, but certainly in the team picture of initial faith-testers. We were set to fly in late-June, a nice time to view crop conditions.

Drawing from my previous experience, this time I had a better idea of the rental plane fine print. The anxiety meter was much lower, though I wondered at departure time if the written set of pre-flight instructions being used by my pilot friend was a good thing or not. I finally decided working strictly from memory when operating a lawnmower is OK, but may not be the best in matters of aviation.

Once again the view from several thousand feet was enlightening. I directed my pilot to specific fields, farms, and research plots; all the while looking for good picture opportunities. From the air, it’s easy to see areas of nutrient deficiency, poor drainage, and oddities such as the impact on crops from burying a pipeline across the county. I wish every farm operator had the opportunity to fly over their farm.

Since that first flight with my fellow parishioner in 2009, we’ve done the same each year since. I’m looking forward to a fourth invite in 2012.

Perhaps one of the more important lessons gained from these flights is the realization of how much land base is used for agriculture, more specifically to produce food. It’s discernible from the ground, but screams at you from above. It can sometimes be easy to forget there are a lot more acres of corn than there are acres of concrete, asphalt, and turf.

From the air it’s easy to see how we’re all connected, not hand to hand, but field to ditch, ditch to stream, stream to lake, and lake to shore. A view from the air is a good reminder of the importance of land stewardship by those in agriculture and the need for appreciation by those who are not.

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

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