Sowing seeds from the sky

Manitoba canola farmers are using helicopters to plant their rain-soaked fields

If you’re a canola farmer on Manitoba’s flood-ravaged prairie, what do you do when you can’t plant your seeds because your fields are too wet for your tractor? John Gibson and his team at Provincial Helicopters, Ltd., have a solution: hire one of their helicopters to do it for you. “The farmers are really having a hard time of it,” says Gibson, president and chief pilot of the company based in Lac du Bonnet, Man. “Getting the seed on the ground, even if it is wet, is a high priority right now.”

Rob Pettinger, president of the Manitoba Canola Growers Association, says this is one of the wettest seasons he’s ever seen. In some regions, he expects canola to produce just 10 per cent of its normal yield. But Gibson says the rain-soaked fields, while a problem for tractors, are just wet enough for the seeds they drop from their helicopters to land without being damaged. He and his team have already planted seeds for three farmers this season, and they have received interest from at least 15 more.

When hired, Gibson’s team mounts a seeding system to a helicopter. In the back, a hopper is filled with thousands of canola seeds. The seeds are then dropped into a large circular dispenser that hangs like a wheel beneath the helicopter. As the aircraft flies back and forth at about 30 feet above the ground, the wheel spins, spitting out seeds.

It costs farmers $14 an acre to use Gibson’s helicopters to seed their fields (it normally costs $2 to $3 an acre to sow canola). Gibson recognizes his service is expensive, but says many farmers are desperate to plant their seeds before it’s too late. “We have to get the crop up,” he says. “That’s what everyone’s shooting for.” Pettinger understands the urgency, but isn’t convinced it’s worth hiring a chopper to do the job. “Maybe it’s better to wave the white flag,” he says. “Next year is another year.”

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