Giving Christmas tree groves, pumpkin growers and spud farmers help from above.
As the first rays of light wake the North Fork, a helicopter glides over the potato fields, almost ballet-like, barely tickling the tops of the leaves. This isn’t a “commuter” copter, as well-heeled weekend warriors might employ on the other fork. This is a working craft, piloted by John Sondgeroth, who has a map in his left hand and the stick in his right. His feet jockey up and down slowly as he approaches the next row and at the precise moment flips a switch, releasing a light mist over the field. “It’s important to be very stable when you do this,” he says. He’s wearing yellow gloves, sunglasses and helmet as he peers down through the Plexiglas bubbled floor. “That’s why I like to start as early as possible, to avoid the wind. Usually I’m in the air at the crack of dawn.”
Sondgeroth is a crop duster, and he’s been doing this for as long as he can remember. His graying moustache and sun-baked skin, seasoned by his unique birds-eye perch above the vast acreage of crops he treats throughout the growing season, testaments to his story. “The North Fork is a beautiful place. No one gets to see it like I do.”
Sondgeroth served in the Army in Vietnam and after returning to the states, got involved with an aerial agricultural operation based out of Garden City where he was first introduced to crop spraying with helicopters. “I really liked the job because I was my own boss and it suited me well,” he says. By 1985, he purchased his own Bell 47 G3B2A helicopter from the Mexican government for $150,000 and had it specially rigged for crop-dusting to start his own company. At first he sprayed apple orchards in upstate New York and then graduated to row crops, treating fields of pumpkins, sweet corn, potatoes, cauliflower and Christmas trees on the east end of Long Island. Later, he expanded to treat swamps and other habitats in the effort to keep control of gypsy moths, Japanese beetles and mosquitoes.
“Most people don’t really know what we do,” Sondgeroth explains as we bank over a farmhouse bathed in the orange glow of the morning sun. “We are here to promote the health and wellbeing of the public.”
Today Sondgeroth is spraying a fungicide and insecticide over the potato fields of the Kujawski family, a multi-generation farming family on the North Fork. He has been working the Kujawskis’ 300-plus acres of land for the last several seasons, spraying potatoes to combat against Colorado potato beetles and blight.
The spraying of potato crops to eliminate blight, a disease causing plants to rot, became regular practice in the United States following the infamous Irish potato famine, which killed the potato crop in the mid-1800s and resulted in the deaths of over a million people in Ireland.
Crop protection has been a source of controversy over the years, with advocates for both synthetic and organic methods making their cases. The term “organic” has become muddled with its rampant use in recent years, but the term classically pertains to fertilizers and pesticides of animal or vegetable origin as distinguished from manufactured chemicals. Regardless of the products or strategies a farmer might employ, crops need protection. And when the ground is too wet for tractors to drag sprayers into fields, Sondgeroth’s crop-dusting is a welcome alternative.
As he swoops high over the fields to get a clear view of the day’s work, squares and rectangles in rich shades of greens and golds fill his view all the way to the horizon, revealing the many varieties of rye, wheat, corn, potatoes and grapes that are grown on the North Fork.
Raymond Kujawski (pronounced kee-OS-kee), one of the owners of the largest potato farm on Long Island, prefers hiring North Fork Helicopter because of the convenience and efficiency. “They can get the entire farm sprayed in three hours. Even with my stateof-the-art sprayer, it would take me at least three days. Plus this year it was one of the wettest summers on record. We were able to get our fields treated when other farmers that don’t use them couldn’t.”
Sondgeroth, now self-described as “partially retired,” runs North Fork Helicopter from a hangar behind King Kullen in Cutchogue, along with Ray Feeney, his assistant, fellow pilot and mechanic. These days, Feeney does the bulk of the row crop spraying on the North and occasionally South Forks, and Sondgeroth handles the mosquito accounts. The two met at a flight school course at MacArthur Airport in Islip. Sondgeroth was looking for an assistant, Feeney loved flying helicopters, and the rest was kismet.
Feeney and Sondgeroth have been taking turns piloting today and have made several runs each by 7 a.m. “Typically, there is less wind earlier in the day, so we are able to keep the spray exactly where we want it,” says Feeney as he makes a quick U-turn and treats the next row of potatoes. “When we spray potatoes, we try to fly from two to 10 feet over the plants. We don’t want to fly too high because there will be more movement of the material. This way the spray goes where you want it to go.”
To keep efficiency of both the fuel and pesticides high, both pilots have perfected the art of a quick and steep climb at the end of the row for a faster return pass on the next row. The ride in the helicopter feels like a smooth rollercoaster as the craft covers the entire field, line by line as a typewriter covers a white sheet of paper. “Safety is always number one with what we do. Our goal is to be as safe as possible while putting our product exactly where we want it.” He speaks specifically of the constant concerns about electric wires, birds, even a stray kite and the people that occasionally wander into the field when the helicopter is scheduled to spray.
Feeney lands, and John quickly attaches a hose to refill the two spray tanks that hang from each side of the helicopter like two guns in their holsters, pumping in new material from a nurse tank where the batch is mixed. It only takes a few minutes to reload and the helicopter is back in the air.
A typical season starts in April and will run through mid-September. Potatoes are generally sprayed on a weekly rotation from June through August, starting with fungicide and slowly increasing the insecticide as the season progresses.
Although John is approaching retirement age, he doesn’t foresee totally giving up crop-dusting. “I like to fly. I’ve always liked to fly. You’re in your own little world. I love the beauty of it. It’s awe-inspiring,” he says as he finishes another row and the helicopter climbs almost straight up, avoiding a group of tall trees at the edge of the field. As each field is completed, he x-es off the highlighted area on his map. Keeping the helicopter in the air runs approximately $700 per hour, so work must be done safely and efficiently to keep a profit margin. “When the day goes smoothly, there’s nothing better.”
On a clear day, at 1,000 feet off the ground, it is possible to see all the way from Cutchogue to Orient Point and the Hamptons. But they always have one eye on the work at hand. As the helicopter blades slow to a stop, Feeney takes pride in another day’s work. “I love everything about this. There’s nothing I don’t love about this job. I never feel like I’m at work.” Sondgeroth is equally pleased with his unique line of work. “It served me well,” he says, “It’s given me a good life, paid my bills, raised my boys and it’s a pleasure to come to work in the morning.”
Brent Sterling Nemetz, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker behind the PBS Series The Souls of New York, splits his time between Greenport and New York City.