I don’t provide services for free.
Today, a potential cherry drying client stopped by my trailer. I think he heard about me from the ag strip where my helicopter is parked; those guys do his spraying.
I stepped outside to chat with him. He introduced himself as a cherry grower with 22 acres of trees in town. Turns out, his three orchard blocks are right by another orchard I’m signed up to start drying in a few weeks, right at the peak of the season in this area.
“I figured that if you were in the area, you might cover my trees, too,” he said. “If I need you,” he added quickly.
His exact thoughts became pretty clear as the conversation progressed. He wanted to be able to call me to dry his cherry trees, but he wasn’t willing to pay a daily standby fee. He figured that the other growers were already paying me for that. He’d just get my services when he needed them. In other words, he’d get the same service and hourly dry rate they were getting, without paying for a contract.
I should make something clear here: without standby pay, there’s no way in hell I’d be here, sitting in an RV in Quincy, WA (of all places), watching the weather every waking hour. It’s not fun to be stuck in a farm town 24/7, on call during daylight hours on days that last 16 hours. It costs money to come up here and stay, it costs money to bring the helicopter here, it costs money to have the helicopter sit out on a concrete pad, idle when it could be doing tour/charter work someplace far more interesting. While it’s true that I make more per hour when I dry cherries than when I fly tourists, if it doesn’t rain, I don’t fly. I flew less than 5 hours over a nine week period last year; if it wasn’t for the standby pay, I would have lost a shitload of money. As it is, I barely broke even. So, needless to say, I won’t work for any grower who won’t pay standby. It’s fair to me and its fair to the other growers who do pay. I also wouldn’t expect any other pilot to do it. In fact, if I met another pilot who dried without standby, I’d chew his ear off. He’d not only be screwing himself, but he’d be screwing the rest of us, too.
I’m already stretched very thin for the period this guy “might” need me. In fact, I wouldn’t mind having a second helicopter around to help me with the contracts I do have — especially for about 5 days when I’m swamped. But I don’t have enough standby pay to pay a second pilot. I explained that to him. I suggested that he find a few other growers that wanted coverage and pool the standby money. I gave him a dollar amount to shoot for and told him the contract would be a minimum of two weeks.
He changed his tune a bit, making it sound as if he really didn’t need a helicopter. “Not much fruit this year,” he said. “Some guys won’t even pick. They’ll let the rain ruin the cherries and collect insurance.”
I countered that statement with what I’d heard. “They lost 60% of the crop in Mattawa. This isn’t like last year. Everyone has fewer cherries and every time a crop is lost those cherries become more valuable.”
I think he was a bit surprised that I knew what was going on. I wasn’t blowing smoke, either. I was speaking the truth and he knew it.
He told me a little about a local pilot who offered to dry his cherries last year with a big helicopter. He didn’t want standby pay. He’d never done it before and he just wanted practice, to learn how to do it.
“You want someone practicing over your trees?” I asked with the proper tone of disbelief.
“No,” he replied. “That’s why I turned him down.” He queried me about the kinds of helicopters and what was best for the job. I told him what I knew. Then he said, “I was thinking of buying a helicopter and just hiring someone to fly it for me.”
The absurdity of that statement made it difficult to reply with a straight face. “You might have trouble finding a pilot willing to come work for you only two or three weeks out of the year.” I also wondered whether that pilot would be satisfied to just sit around and wait, without pay, until it might be time to fly.
There wasn’t much of a conversation after that. He didn’t get what he wanted; I wouldn’t back down. I repeated my suggestion. “If a few of you get together and put in the money, I can get another pilot and can easily cover another 50 or 60 acres.”
“I don’t know if there’s anyone else.”
I knew there were plenty of other growers in town. Last year, they’d taken the cheap route and had lucked out. Maybe they’d even done it the year before that. But this summer was different. This summer, it was raining and unprotected crops were being ruined.
“I’ll get you my card,” I said, going back into the trailer. I came out and handed him the card. “Call me if you think you want coverage. But don’t wait until the last minute. I’ll need at least two weeks notice to find a pilot.”
I watched him drive off and went back inside. Will I hear from him? It depends how much it rains over the next two weeks.
I’ll be doing a rain dance later tonight.