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Jake McDonald - Heartbeat feature story

Jake McDonald propels his love of agriculture and flying into crop dusting career.

By Joann Pipkin

plane landingOnce the four-lane winds north from the capital city, we detour through a bustling hub. Straight east across the flatlands, we’re led through row crop country. Morning sun glistens off the silver statues that line the path. Giant wheels roll on. Dust flies in the distance as the fruits of their labor find anchor. A gentle summer breeze sways soon-to-be fodder alongside tidy homesteads. In the midst of a time that has seen its share of uncertainty, the rural Missouri landscape seems unscathed. Business as usual, the farmer’s toil never falters.

As our journey jogs us through quaint agrarian villages, bovine graze pastures here and yon before we find our destination tucked away in the top of an airport hangar on the edge of Bowling Green.

In another land, he might greet us with, "G’day, mate," but the land-down-under lingo is kept for another visitor on another day. Here, Australian native Jake McDonald settles into the rustic ways of the small northeast Missouri town he now calls home. At the cockpit controls, the trained pilot is a helping hand to farmers across the region through his business, Air Cover Crop Solutions.

From the Land Down Under

Born into a farming family in Victoria, Australia, McDonald’s grandfather was primarily a rancher although he dabbled in what might have been the early days of crop dusting. His father, Mark McDonald, and three of his four uncles are also crop dusters. McDonald’s grandmother was one of the first female pilots in Australia and flew around the country delivering parts with his grandfather in a World War I trainer plane.

"All I ever wanted to do was fly," McDonald says simply.

At 13, McDonald was enrolled in a college-level aeronautical engineering class in high school. "That let me make some decisions pretty early on about what I wanted to do," he said.

A Winston Churchill Fellow, McDonald’s father did work centered around the study of sustainable agriculture, and Jake always intended to join his father’s business as a crop duster. When Jake was 17, the family journeyed to the United States on a holiday, and the young lad knew he wouldn’t be staying in his home country.

After determining how to get a visa, at 19 McDonald moved to America. His first job landed him in California as ground crew for a crop duster. The young pilot eventually found himself at the controls flying over rice fields, but in 2012 and 2013 drought hit the Golden State.​​

After moving on to Texas, McDonald met his jacob and tiana​now wife, ​​Tiana, whil​e flying. Weary​ of the wandering lifestyle commonplace in the crop-dusting indust​ry, the McDonalds came to own their current business in 2017 when an existing single plane operation was offered for sale.

"The airport was originally set up in 1955 for Stearman Crop Dusters," McDonald explains. "There has been a crop duster here in one form or another for decades."

At 27, McDonald is one of the youngest chief pilots in the United States. His Air Cover Crop Solutions operation serves farmers in the northeast Missouri region, stretching north to near the Iowa line, east across the Mississippi River into Illinois and west to near Centralia. To the south, his business has worked with clients near Rolla. The business offers cover spray, seeding, fertilization and complete crop dusting and aerial applications solutions.

"The old crop dusters were kind of a fly-by-night kind of thing," McDonald says. "You go where the work is. That’s great in the very short term, but it means that no one can count on you."

McDonald has pledged to manage his business differently, taking on clients that he knows his operation can cover.

Expansion has allowed the McDonalds to add an airplane to its fleet each year since inception. Air Cover Crop Solutions staff includes McDonald, chief pilot; wife Tiana McDonald, office manager; Mark McDonald, pilot; Tiana’s father, Michael Mozina, ground manager; Kyle Blankenship, ground crew; Adam Poulos, loader and pilot in training; and Joe McDonald, pilot.

Laying the Foundation

When the McDonalds began their new venture, Jake says they had to build it from the ground up.

"The business didn’t operate the year before we bought it," Tiana McDonald explains. "We had the airplane, the base and the office, but we basically had to get all of our own clients."

With the help of who Jake calls "key people" the couple met through getting involved in the Pike County Young Farmers and Ranchers group, they were able to make some initial handshakes.

"From them giving us a chance, we were able to show them that were trustworthy," Tiana says.​

Backed by full transparency on applications, plane spraying​the McDonalds have invested in what​ Jake labels "the best possible GPS (global ​positioning systems)" they can buy. ​​"The Satloc systems are accurate down to three inches," he notes. Inside the plane, GPS is controlled by spray pressure on the boom.

"When the plane flies over your field, it’s next to impossible for a farmer to be able to tell what kind of job he’s getting," McDonald says. "So, with every invoice, we send the As-Applied map for the job. That map is generated by the Satloc as we fly over the field. And, it’s turned off by the pressure in the boom. So, the farmer can see exactly where the airplane flew, exactly what was covered and what wasn’t covered."

By booking the plane at no more than 70 percent capacity at any given time, McDonald says they can provide greater assurance on when a field will be covered.

"Crop dusters have garnered a very bad reputation because they’ll over promise and under deliver," McDonald says. "We’re trying to develop accountability inside of our own business for the farmers that we work with."

Flying smaller airplanes further sets McDonald’s business apart. "We fly small airplanes that go slower," he explains. "They cover less acres per day and it costs more for me to hire multiple pilots, but the slower and lower you fly, the better job you do."

Jake McDonald plane

McDonald says the protocol helps the operation provide a more accurate spray job for the customer with better deposition rate of chemical into the crop.

"You’re actually getting more chemical out of a slower, smaller airplane per acre than you do out of a larger, faster airplane," he adds. "We’re also working on boom and spray pattern technology that is reducing drift. So, we’re getting a higher absorption rate per gallon of chemical actually applied to the field."

At Mother Nature's Mercy

Crop dusting does not come without its own challenges, McDonald says. And, weather is perhaps the business’ biggest hurdle.

"We’re meteorologists before we’re pilots," McDonald notes. "The other challenge is being neighborly. That’s one of the hardest things to figure out. What field can you spray, when?"

Building relationships with both farmers and their neighbors has been key to building a successful business, McDonald says. And, providing transparency has paved the way for that.

He says a lot of people don’t realize how highly regulated the trade is. "We’re not just out spraying chemicals willy-nilly," he explains. "And, the chemicals that we are spraying, most of the time, are a lot less potent than your washing detergent."

While McDonald does his very best to not fly over houses, sometimes it is simply unavoidable. He says the service they provide is necessary for a crop to produce. "If crop dusting stopped tomorrow, then 60 percent of all produce would be unavailable," he notes.

In fact, McDonald adds that a number of U.S. agricultural industries would experience complete crop failures if it weren’t for crop dusters. Orchard systems, like almond and pecan, as they exist today would be especially compromised, he says.

Handshakes and the Big Picture

A simple knock on the door initially led FCS Financial’s Austin Bailey to stop by Air Cover Crop Solutions.

"(Austin) stopped by and offered me some information," McDonald says. "He said if I ever needed help to call, and here we are."

Later, it was McDonald that invited Bailey to join the Pike County Young Farmers and Ranchers. Two years have passed and McDonald has come to count on Baileys knowledge of the agriculture in the area.

"He answers all the questions I have all the time," McDonald says. "he takes the time to explain things to me. If he’s busy, he gets back to me. FCS Financial in my mind is Austin Bailey."

For the young entrepreneur, the one-on-one relationship is key to his business.

"​Crop dusting is one of those jacob and austin​things that, ​when a regular lender looks at it, it scares them​," Tiana McDonald says, "because they don’t know much about airplanes or agriculture. But having that background in agriculture, FCS Financial can look at our business and know that it’s not just airplanes. ​It’s a bigger picture."

Jake McDonald adds, "Austin is in it. That connection to the industry that you’re serving can’t be understated. It’s just the ability to understand what your clients are trying to do."

Bailey appreciates the McDonalds’ willingness to work hard and be both business- and community-minded.

"From our standpoint, the relationships are the most important thing," Bailey says. "We understand if they’re having a good year or bad year, and we can make changes as needed. And, we want them to be able to reach out and feel comfortable doing that even in a newer relationship."

jacob, tiana and austin

A Force-Multiplier​​

With technology changing every day in the agricultural in​dustry, McDonald says it will be interesting to see how that affects his business in the future, especially with the airplanes themselves.​​jacob plane

"The air tractor was designed in the early ‘70s," McDonald says. "The Ag Cat out there was designed in the ‘50s. One of the engines that I have on one of the airplanes fought in World War II."​

For a man that just loves to fly and has farming in his roots, it seems that finding a career which combines the two is a perfect fit.​

"I can’t think of anything else that I’d want to do," McDonald says.

He calls the airplane a force-multiplier, noting a business like his can add between 12 to 17 percent in productivity to a crop.

"All we’re doing is making what the farmer has already done more effective," he says.

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