AVON PARK - As an Alabama boy growing up on farm near the Florida-Alabama border, Jerry Wise would watch crop-dusting, single-engine planes dart like field flies up and down over the surrounding acres over fields of cotton and peanuts.
Before he was a teenager, Wise decided he too would take his career to the air, and 45 years later his career is still taking off.
Using two of his own planes and one leased, from up in the air and flying sometimes just a mere three to five feet above tree lines, Wise helps keep trees and plants healthy, produce hearty plants and keep growers and farmers happy.
Wise is the only agricultural aviation pilot based in Avon Park and one of less than 10 ag-pilots flying planes and helicopters over farms and groves in Highlands County.
From his 1995 Ayres Turbo Thrust 750 horsepower turbo-prop low-wing agricultural aircraft, Wise reckons he works to keep about 250,000 acres of land pest-free per year. From his single cockpit, between maintenance and flying, he spends about 100 hours a week ascending and dipping like an aerial acrobat, helping keep others' produce productive - just like he owned it.
"I know what the farmers want done. I've always had to base my business on the fact when someone hires me, I try to spray it like it was my own," he said, not long after landing his plane at the Avon Park Executive Airport. "I like to do it right."
Wise's primary target are citrus trees and with a mix of organic phosphates and synthetic pyrethroid insecticides he makes an aerial battle against Asian psyllids - also known as "jumping plant lice" - herbivorous pests associated with "greening." Greening is spread by a disease-infected psyllid, producing fruit that is green, misshapen, bitter and unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or for juice. It also causes premature death of the trees and those factors have kept Wise's career up in the air for over four decades, from Highlands, Polk and Hardee counties and even up to southern Alabama twice a year for two-week jobs.
However, the bulk of Wise's insecticide applications take place in an 18-mile circle around the Executive Airport, where he is based. There, he leases an apron for his plane and an area for a garage, storage space, supply center and plastic recycling bin for used insecticide containers, which rapidly accumulate from spraying between 450 and 475 gallons of insecticide per 90 acres.
Using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to maneuver and track his path, that dusting takes care of part of Highlands County's approximately 63,000 acres of citrus groves, roughly 13 percent of the county's 1,000 square miles of land.
Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, said Wise does a "significant portion" of the spraying countywide. He said growers have confidence in Wise's abilities because of not only his aerial expertise, but his knowledge of agriculture.
Royce, a former grove owner, said Wise is versed in coordinating cooperative sprays, covering large areas of trees that overlap grove owners' properties saving Wise gas costs and in turn, passing savings onto growers.
"He's really one of the key folks as we battle citrus greening, more specifically, the Asiatic psyllids," he said. "He does a very significant portion of the spraying and the growers really enjoy working with him. He really plays in integral role in the Highlands County citrus industry."
Wise's noteworthy rise in crop dusting began in Geneva, Ala., in 1979 when he got his commercial pilot's license after beginning private flying lessons at 18 years old. He developed his skills by setting up a small air strip in his father's cattle pasture. At 22, he traded a herd of cattle for his first plane, a Piper Pawnee, which he wrecked hitting a power line resulting in a five-week stay in the hospital in Oct. 1979.
By 1995, Wise had been working on Florida's east coast and by 2010, he moved his one-man company, Ag Flying Service Inc,, to Avon Park.
"I knew there was a need for a permanent, fixed-based operator in this area," he said.
That need was evident to Steve Farr, production manager for Ben Hill Griffin Inc., Frostproof. A small citrus grove owner himself, he said on a personal level, Wise has a grasp on the needs of his clients and the time frames they have to maximize their crops.
"He understands the necessity of doing whole areas at once and coordinating jobs between growers. He's good, efficient, experienced and thorough and understands the needs of the growers to get (insecticide) applications completed," he said.
Over the years, Wise said he's had a few close calls in the sky, but overall, he's enjoyed getting high on the job.
"I'll keep doing this until they tell me I can't anymore. I spend six to eight hours in the cockpit a day; you learn to not push yourself past your limits," he said.