Mississippians have been dusting their crops with various substances intended to protect plants from insect pests, weeds, and other natural threats since the very earliest days of agriculture in the state. Whereas Indian farmers and later white settlers and slaves had employed a combination of techniques to increase their crop yields, after the late nineteenth century farmers began relying almost exclusively on topical, poisonous solutions, specifically arsenical compounds such as calcium arsenate and lead arsenate. Landowners usually gave the task of applying the poisons to hired hands or tenant farmers, who did so by either walking through the fields with handheld pump sprayers or by riding through the fields on horseback. Both of these methods of application were slow and costly and were never completely effective.
At the beginning of the twentieth century two factors changed forever the way Mississippians fought farm pests: the arrival of the cotton boll weevil and advances in technology. The weevil, the South’s greatest agricultural enemy, began destroying the state’s cotton in 1907, and extension agents as well as enterprising hucksters soon began recommending various poisonous mixtures as solutions to stem the invasion. Experts initially continued to recommend hand dusting the crop with arsenical mixtures, but businesses sprang up around the state offering alternative pesticides of dubious value to desperate farmers. As the boll weevil continued to destroy thousands of tons of Mississippi cotton each year, money from the federal government, plantation owners, and banks flowed into the state to fund research into new pesticides and innovative methods of delivering the poisons.
Though the first experiments in aerial crop dusting were conducted in Ohio, engineers and farmers made the greatest developments toward commercial viability in Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta. In Monroe, Louisiana, US Department of Agriculture entomologists paired with the Huff-Daland Airplane Company, which manufactured military airplanes, and began retrofitting aircraft with hoppers to drop dust onto farm fields. Though commercial crop dusters were born in Louisiana, they proved their mettle in the Mississippi Delta, where the vast, flat cotton fields with relatively few power lines and stands of trees provided an optimal training ground not only for the technology but for the pilots, who flew eight to ten feet above the tops of cotton rows and then quickly jerked their aircraft skyward to avoid the obstacles at row’s end. Few planters had this expertise or could afford aircraft, so many began paying dusting companies to spray fields. This, too, was costly. By the beginning of the Great Depression, for example, the Delta and Pine Land Company in Scott was paying Delta Air Service (later Delta Airlines) eleven thousand dollars per month to dust the company’s fields with calcium arsenate.
Following World War II Mississippi farmers realized that crop dusting was prohibitively expensive, but its use was also limited by the lack of pesticide options. As early as the 1910s chemists had devised synthetic organic pesticides to kill insects, but in the late 1940s and 1950s chemical companies and extension agents began pushing these chemical compounds on Mississippi growers. The most famous of these compounds was DDT, which at first appeared to be a panacea for pest problems. Used during World War II to kill mosquitoes in Asia, DDT proved equally effective against boll weevils. In addition, it was relatively inexpensive because a small quantity could be diluted to cover thousands of acres. Mississippians used DDT in huge quantities, and while it cut pest and mosquito populations, it also decimated birds and fish and damaged human health. Critics had long pointed out crop dusting did not limit poison solely to its intended targets but instead spread harmful chemicals across other fields, water sources, and populated areas. The dangers associated with DDT only bolstered this argument. Tenants usually lived on the edges of fields, and duster pilots could not avoid spraying these dwellings. Historians, sociologists, and scientists have recently uncovered damning evidence of the deleterious effects this spraying had on the health of tenant farmers as well as of crop duster pilots.
By the end of the twentieth century Mississippians used airplanes to apply fertilizers and fungicides as well as pesticides to cotton, corn, soybeans, and other crops. Although DDT is now banned, the Environmental Protection Agency has connected use of other insecticides to high rates of cancers, chronic health problems, and developmental anomalies in people living in rural areas. On average, early twenty-first-century landowners in the Mississippi Delta apply more pesticides to their fields than do farmers in other areas of the South.
- Pete Daniel, Toxic Drift: Pesticides and Health in the Post–World War II South (2005)
- W. David Lewis and Wesley Phillips Newton, Delta: The History of an Airline (1979)
- Edmund Russell, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (2001)