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Ag pilot says Modesto turned him down for Earth Day booth

Don't call Dave Stein a crop-duster. The 48-year-old pilot is an "aerial applicator." That's the modern term for pilots like Stein who zoom over farmers' fields.

The name isn't the only thing that's changed about his business over the years. Stein thought renting a booth at Modesto's Earth Day celebration today would help educate the public about how aerial applicators, in his view, help the Earth.

But the city denied his request, said Stein, on the grounds that he pollutes the air. Earth Day organizers were unavailable for comment Friday.

Stein says the "polluter" label is a common misconception. "Unfortunately, when a lot of people see an ag aircraft in the sky, the first thing they think is poison and cancer, and that's not what's going on," Stein said. "We do good things for the environment, but nobody knows that."

He's fighting an uphill public relations battle. Exposure to pesticides has been linked to brain cancer, birth defects and miscarriages, according to the Pesticide Action Network.

Stein grows hay and silage corn on his family's farm eight miles east of Modesto. He's been an ag pilot for 30 years.

He says applying pesticides isn't as harmful to the environment as it once was. In the old days, chemicals were powders that drifted easily in the wind. Now, pesticides come in small grains the size of coarse pepper or pebbles. They fall directly onto crops and don't blow around, Stein said.

He says aerial application is more eco-friendly than using a tractor: A plane uses 25 gallons of fuel to spray 150 acres, while a tractor burns four times as much fuel.

Ag pilots also help restore habitat by planting native grass seeds; dump water on dusty roads to control air pollution; and service organic crops with organic materials, Stein says.

His plane plants rice in the Sacramento Valley, feeds honeybees with sugar water and applies sunscreen to keep fruit and nut crops from getting burned.

When people call to complain after they see Stein's plane in action, he makes it a point to visit them and explain what he's doing.

"When I talk to people ... they're relieved," he said. "When I leave these people's yards, they're not mad and we never hear from them again."

He was hoping to bring a similar message to Earth Day. The city invites businesses or organizations that promote eco-friendly products, services or programs, according to the city's Web site. The application for vendor booths reads, "Issues concerning air, land, water and other natural resources affect everyone and the festival is a great place to learn about them."

The free event also provides family-friendly entertainment such as music, food and bounce houses. Not every organization that participates has direct ties to "green" activities. The Bee, the Modesto Nuts baseball team, Comcast cable and Storer Transportation are among the sponsors.

Stein says ag-supporting businesses like his deserve a spot at the event. "If all of agriculture pulled out of the city of Modesto, Modesto would be a ghost town," he said. "The city of Modesto needs to respect ag and realize how important we are."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at http://twitter.com/BeeReporter.

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