HENNING — A Vermilion County native's crop-dusting business is taking off this summer with three planes operating from a hangar and private concrete runway just north of Henning.
Jim Mills, 65, grew up in the Bismarck area but for the last 30 years has owned and operated his own businesses, including his Terre Haute, Ind.-based business, Turbines Inc., that repairs, overhauls and tests turboprop airplane engines, which are also the engines used in his crop-dusting planes.
Now, Mills is expanding his crop-dusting business, Mills Ag Service, to Vermilion County.
With help from his crop-dusting pilot and friend, Ted Campbell of Louisiana, Mills poured a 2,000-foot concrete runway last summer in the middle of a cornfield he owns about a mile north of Henning. The runway, hidden by crops on either side, connects to a plane-taxi loop that runs through a metal hangar that's home base for three to four turboprop crop-dusting planes. Mills said there's a crop-dusting void in the Vermilion County area, because it's on the outer limits of other crop-dusting businesses.
Mills started in the aviation industry working in engineering maintenance for the former Britt Airways that operated out of Terre Haute, and at one time, out of the Vermilion County Airport when it had passenger airline service.
Mills said he quietly started the crop-dusting operation near Henning last summer, launching a three-year business plan and serving farms from northern Vermilion County to Paris in Edgar County. He said the planes have about a 30-40-mile range from the Henning air strip, and each plane can spray up to 3,000 acres in one day. The planes can carry up to 4,000 pounds or 660 gallons of chemical and can cover 300 acres in one trip. The planes are equipped with GPS systems with a small computer screen in the cockpit that guides pilots, like Campbell, to the exact field to be sprayed and guides them through the job, charting each pass the plane makes. Afterward, Mills said, a printed map of the field is given to the field's owner illustrating through colored lines each pass made by the plane.
Campbell, who has been crop dusting for more than 40 years, hasn't always relied on GPS, however, learning as a teen in the South to do it the old-fashioned way — with flaggers on the ground guiding him.
This year, Mills' business has grown as more area farmers are placing orders, and Mills continues the second year of his plan as contractors build out the office section of the hangar, moving him toward a year-around operation.
The hangar and runway, he said, are state-inspected and -approved and purpose built, designed specifically for his crop dusting operation with a large tank beneath the hangar floor to catch any runoff in the event of a spill loading one of the planes.
This month, Campbell and other pilots have been hitting local cornfields hard, spraying fungicide that, Mills said, can increase yields anywhere from 7 to 40 bushels per acre, but they have a small window of application for the fungicide that must be sprayed around the time the corn develops the tassel.
Mills said the planes can also apply fertilizer along with the fungicide. He said the spray services they can offer range from weed control to seeding, fertilizer and spraying the fungicide.