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Soaring to new heights: Dexter crop duster is born to fly

KayDee Mitchell is one the youngest and among the few female crop dusters in America
Published: Aug. 23, 2021 at 3:43 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 23, 2021 at 8:00 PM CDT
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MALDEN, Mo. (KFVS) - If you want something bad enough, you have to just go for it, even if that means stepping outside your comfort zone and into the unknown.

KayDee Mitchell has done just that.

The 23-year-old from Dexter is an aerial applicator, or crop duster.

It’s a field dominated by men.

“I love a challenge,” said KayDee Mitchell.

It’s her third year on the job, so she’s not even a rookie anymore.

Crop dusting is not something she ever saw herself doing.

“One day I was talking with my uncle at the dinner table, trying to figure out what I’m going to do in life,” said Mitchell.

She graduated from Campbell High School in 2016, and at the time of that dinner table discussion she had two years of college under her belt.

She was hoping for a future career in agricultural business, but wasn’t sure exactly what direction she wanted to take.

“I told her I think I’m going to buy an airplane because we can’t get anyone to drive the ground rigs, and she [KayDee] said I’ll do it,” said Gary Murphy II, KayDee’s uncle.

That conversation happened on a Friday, and that following Monday they were in Georgia moving KayDee into an ag flight school.

“I was the only girl there,” said Mitchell.

KayDee reflected back on how she had separate living quarters from the male students, and how she faced daily skeptics.

“The guys said, ‘she’ll be gone in two weeks,’” said Mitchell. “Then they said, ‘she’ll be gone in a month’ and that’s what people back home were saying as well.”

She proved them all wrong.

KayDee soared through the program and before long was in the air on her own spraying fields back home in southeast Missouri.

She said some of the locals still can’t wrap their heads around it.

“Well they still think I can’t fly, still to this day, probably even watching this they will say, ‘oh she don’t fly that plane,’” said Mitchell.

Her family hears the same comments.

“Oh yeah, everybody refers to her as that girl who flies that plane,” said Gary Murphy.

That girl in the plane got to where she is today because, even when life was hard, someone was there to pick her up and offer encouragement.

KayDee’s life could have taken a much different path.

She said a lot of people likely didn’t expect that she would have much success.

She had a lot to prove, and didn’t want her past to define her.

With her parents not in the picture from early on, her grandmother raised her.

KayDee’s Uncle Gary and Aunt Camie also stepped in to help.

“Her whole life I’ve told her to never quit,” said Gary Murphy.

That constant support pushed her to become the woman she is today.

“I can’t even put it into words, they are everything,” said Mitchell.

Wanting to support the family farm and make her mark on agriculture, something she’s always loved, KayDee was all in.

“It’s a small community, even around the world, there’s not a lot of people who do this,” said Mitchell.

According to the National Agricultural Aviation Association, there are 3,400 agricultural pilots in the United States.

Jay Calleja, manager of communications for the NAAA, said the group does not keep specific track of ag pilots by gender or age.

However, Calleja himself said he only knew of about a handful of female pilots.

We were able to find a few more, so after that collaboration we found it pretty safe to say KayDee Mitchell is one of less than 10 female crop dusters in America.

She is also one of the youngest, as she started her career at just 20 years old.

“It does take serious guts to get in the airplane,” said Mitchell.

It also takes a lot of willpower to pull off the workload.

Depending on the weather, the job is often 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and 7 days a week.

The season also runs from March through October.

Plus, the job comes with it’s obvious dangers.

“Out there, you’ve really got to have a good instinct to know what to do if something happens,” said Mitchell. “You’ve got to react. You’ve gotta be on your toes.”

It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but it has its perks.

“It’s good and fast money,” said Mitchell.

Plus, she can take a break in the winter months.

While KayDee is clearly tough, she also has a soft side.

“When I’m not working I do girly things,” said Mitchell. “I’m a girly girl. I get my nails done, I may need to catch up on getting my hair done. I love shopping.”

But, when those nails dry she’s back in the cockpit doing what she loves, often putting in 120 hour work weeks.

“At the end of the day I take my helmet off and take a deep breath, and say we did it,” said Mitchell. “Another day. Let’s get out, clean the airplane and go home so we can do it all again tomorrow.”

She’s not sure how long she will do this job, or what else she may tackle in the future.

Her family knows one thing for sure, when it comes to this young pilot, not even the sky is the limit.

“I will always be on the sidelines cheerin’ her on, no matter what she’s doing,” said Camie Murphy, KayDee’s aunt. “But, I can come out here and watch her take off and land all day long. It is such a proud moment for me.”

As her niece leads the way, inspiring other young women to dream big.

“I have full faith I can do whatever I put my mind to,” said KayDee Mitchell.

By the way, August marks the 100th anniversary of aerial application, or crop dusting.

Farmers use crop dusting to control insects and plant disease on millions of acres of crops every year.

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