Ray Pool aviator

Aubrey and Ray Pool and Gloria and Bill Hoffrage, left to right, with the Hoffrages’ 1943 Stearman in the background.

Flying, farming builds life-long friendships for storied California rural aviators

Ray Pool, 91, took his first airplane ride at age 12 and relinquished the controls of his last official airplane hop at age 72. His aerial skill got him into farming. Bill Hoffrage, 75, who flew on pollen and beneficial insects for several years in a small plane, now flies a vintage 1943 Stearman as a hobby.

The Federal Aviation Administration flight inspector asked Ray Pool “how many cows are there in that in that little herd down there?”

Pool was feeling pretty confident. After all, he had just impressed the examiner with a 360 turn that was so tight he caught up with his prop wash.

Pool quickly said, “12.” The inspector replied, “I count 13.”

“You said cows. You must have counted the bull.” Pool retorted. Sarcasm aside, he received medical clearance to fly again.

This was no small accomplishment since Pool had spent a year in a Utah hospital recovering from crashing his small plane into a Nevada mountain while rounding up mustangs. He was caught in a down draft.

Pool readily admits it was a “mistake in judgment” that cost him a foot and an eye and shattered his arm.

Pool, a still-active 91-year-old Madera County, Calif. farmer, sniggers about the conversation that took place more than six decades ago, early in Pool’s colorful flying career that included a stint as a WWII Army Air Corp bomber pilot, a night-flying fish hunter far into the Pacific off San Diego, a helicopter and fixed wing pilot for the government in Montana and, eventually, to crop dusting in the San Joaquin Valley.

He trained to be a B17 pilot in the last stages of WWII, but never saw action. While waiting for an overseas assignment, he earned his commercial license in Tennessee. When the war ended, he came back to California.

Fish spotting was his spookiest flying. It was at night off the coast, looking for florescence in water, a telltale sign of catchable fish for commercial fishermen.

“After a while, I was afraid that instead of looking for fish for food, I was going to become fish food,” he recalls. “There is nothing around 200 miles off the coast.”

Montana flying also made him uneasy, so he opted for a safer aerial career - crop dusting.

Pool took his first airplane ride at age 12 and relinquished the controls of his last official airplane hop at age 72.

His aerial skill got him into farming. Just like flying, he had success at raising crops and was recognized a couple of years ago as Madera County senior farmer of the year.

In a Congressional resolution, U.S. Rep. Jim Costa said “Ray's many accomplishments can be attributed to his determination and willingness to never give up.

“Flying and farming will always have a special place in Ray's heart, but his achievements would never have been possible if not for the support of his devoted wife, Audrey. Ray and Audrey have given back to their community in so many ways, and they must be commended for all of their great efforts,” Costa wrote.

Pool still farms about 150 acres of almonds and grapes and checks on the farm several times a week. He lives in Madera. He leases out another 225 that are part of a family corporation.

Pool and longtime friend, pilot and raisin farmer Bill Hoffrage, 75, sat down with Western Farm Press recently and shared their love of flying and farming.

Hoffrage, who flew on pollen and beneficial insects for several years in a small plane, now flies a vintage 1943 Stearman for a hobby. He donates rides for fund-raising charities. He’s also known to spot veterans while about town or at a fly-in and offers to take them up.

Hoffrage recently handed off the Stearman’s stick to Pool on a short hop to a fly-in at an old WW II air base, Eagle Field near Firebaugh, Calif. Although Pool quit flying 20 years ago, Hoffrage called his friend a “ballerina” for the way he handled the Stearman in the air.

Hoffrage admitted, though, his friend didn’t like his Stearman, even though it was a similar model that got Pool started in 1971 with his own aerial application business. Pool spent a winter modifying a Stearman to make it more powerful and agile in the air. This was after he worked for two other valley crop dusting companies.

“I didn’t say I did not like Bill’s plane, but it was uncomfortable compared to what I modified. Bill’s plane is too heavy, and it is hard to see out of,” said Pool.

“The plane I modified was so easy to fly. You did not have to force it to do anything. It did what I was thinking. I flew that plane for 20 years and still regret getting rid of it.”

Hoffrage, who once was Pool’s country neighbor, said Pool could apply sulfur to grapes for powdery mildew control like no other. He cited a small vineyard on Avenue 23 in Madera County with a row of Eucalyptus trees along one side.

“He would come off those Eucalyptus trees with his wheels literally on the grapes, the prop wash forcing the sulfur into the grapes. When he would pull up, the sulfur would stop and never go across the road,” Hoffrage said. “Ray was the best sulfur guy I have ever seen.

“Ray’s Stearman was not a Stearman. It was a Ray Pool plane,” Hoffrage said.

Like many farmers who operate commercial trucks or custom farm or harvest to supplement their farms, Pool’s crop dusting business financed his farming.

“Flying is what got me into farming. People loaned me a lot of money over the years, and the airplanes paid interest until crops came in,” Pool recalled.

He started farming cotton and alfalfa on hard pan and almost went broke. He soon learned that there is more profit in permanent crops.

Arthur Bright of Bright’s Nursery in Merced County initially helped him make the switch from row crops to almonds.

“I was flying for Bright’s earlier on when getting started. I told Arthur his orchards sure looked good and wished I had something like that,” Pool recalled. “He asked me if I was serious and I said yes, so we traded out my work for him planting 40 acres of almonds for me.”

He then still had 40 acres of open ground. His neighbor planted a new vineyard, and Pool asked him how much he was making. His neighbor said $1,000 per acre.

Gallo was signing new contracts for wine grapes.

“I did not know a damn thing about growing grapes - all I did was dust them, and I hated that. Gallo gave me a $1 million contract for growing Barbera and French Colombard…..took me 20 years to collect that $1 million. Gallo made it made it tough some years to deliver good grapes, but they paid enough so you could stay in farming.”

Pool said many growers without contracts lost everything during the grape oversupply years. He still delivers to Gallo.

Hoffrage and Pool obviously love flying, but their flying has purpose…farming.

“We enjoy farming and the promise of the next harvest after training vines and seeing your efforts bear fruit. It is a nice cycle to be part of,” Hoffrage said.

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Pool, whose family moved to Madera in 1933, and Hoffrage, a farmer there for more than 40 years, have seen many changes in agriculture.

Financing, they both agree, is one of the biggest. Wide swings in crop economics have made it difficult to maintain financing. Many like Hoffrage, now self-financed says ”you have got to do your homework before making cropping decisions and not rely totally on financing institutions.”

They cited the grape boom and bust cycle of the 1980s when banks encouraged grape plantings only to result in a disastrous oversupply of wine grapes.

Pool recalls visiting with a large Madera County farmer who said the banks were telling growers several years ago not to plant pistachios, which have become one of the major and rapidly growing nut crops in the valley.

“Whatever the banks say; do the opposite,” laughs Pool.

There has been no greater challenge than water today for farming.

“Availability - if it is wet - is the No. 1 priority with quality and cost secondary,” Hoffrage said. “There may be a lot of water 3,500 feet down, but what is the quality?”

Salts and other undesirable elements can have a major impact on crops, particularly salts on almonds. Hoffrage said that is becoming a major issue in the Chowchilla area as in many other parts of the Central Valley.

Water has had a surprising, direct impact on crop dusting.

“Drip irrigation just about killed crop dusting,” Pool said, explaining the obvious: with flood or furrow irrigation, growers cannot get into fields with ground spray rigs and must call aerial applicators to apply fertilizers and pesticides. Now with drip, farmers can get into fields virtually year round.

Nevertheless, Pool just installed a new drip system on almonds.

“Ray told me it would pay off in 10 years” when Ray is 102,” Hoffrage laughed.

“It has already paid off,” Pool corrected. “It is more efficient and saves water.”

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