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THE SKY’S THE LIMIT: Opportunity Takes Flight At Bradley Farm

THE SKY’S THE LIMIT: Opportunity Takes Flight At Bradley Farm
October 23, 2006 |

There may not be as many arrivals and departures as Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, but there’s a definite buzz in the air at Steve Bradley’s Jefferson County farm.Turn your eyes skyward, and you’ll see a small red airplane flying reconnaissance far above the farm as it snaps photographs of the tiny, ant-like spectators and vehicles below.Look again, and you may see a white jet streaking past, or a bright orange helicopter hovering just feet from the ground. It’s been that way for more than two years now, ever since Bradley opened his arms — and a portion of his hay field — to the Birmingham Helicopter Modelers, a group of earth-bound pilots who steer their small-scale, radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters through a variety of aeronautical twists, turns and rolls two to three days a week at the Bradley farm.It’s just one more way Bradley lets opportunity take flight at his hay and cattle farm. And it’s one more reminder that the boundaries between city and country are growing less defined as the nation prepares to observe Farm-City Week on Nov. 17-23.”You’ve got farms all over the state, but we’re right in the middle of urban everything,” said Bradley. “Yet, when you’re standing here, you wouldn’t think you’re 20 minutes from downtown Birmingham or 10 minutes from the Galleria.”Indeed, Bradley’s bucolic 1,000-acre spread offers a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city, which is exactly why he is so quick to open his farm to urban dwellers seeking solace in the country.In addition to these radio-control pilots, Bradley also welcomes equestrians who ride out the day’s stress across his pastures, motorists who stop along the roadside to let their kids feed the cows over the fence, and pretty much anyone else who simply wants to commune with nature for a while. “I think it’s important to embrace what’s coming rather than bristle up and be hostile,” said Bradley. “It’s good to embrace the community because if you share what you have, then, if there’s ever a time when farmers need support, they’re going to remember that. They’re going to say, ‘Farmers are good people. They’re not ogres who say, ‘Get off my land! Don’t come around!” They’re going to say, ‘He’s a nice guy. He let us come and visit his farm.’ That’s good PR for farmers. It’s good to embrace the community rather than push it away.”But Bradley isn’t content with just letting others come to him — his farm’s community outreach also includes electrical supply and erosion control businesses that keep him interacting with urbanites. Even now, there’s another enterprise about to spring up on the farm — a portable ethanol plant capable of producing 250 gallons of ethanol a day — that will further extend his outreach. “It’s a model for the company to sell in the future, and it’s completely funded by the company that’s building it,” he said. “I was just fortunate enough to be asked if they could do it here because of my central location, the fact that I have 100 cows that can eat the byproduct, and the fact that I have a nice place where I can show potential customers how this operates.”Yep, business is looking up for Bradley, particularly since the arrival of the Birmingham Helicopter Modelers. Even before they approached him for permission to fly on his farm, Bradley was already familiar with the club.”They originally started in a field across from my house, and our family would go out in the front yard and watch them,” he said. “We thought it was fun, but one of the neighbors didn’t think it was fun, and proceeded to shoot their aircraft down. Needless to say, they decided that was not a good location after they lost a couple of planes. It just goes to show you how different people are — we thought it was fun, and the others went out to shoot them.”Even so, Bradley admits he was reluctant to grant permission even after the club told him that, as a member of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, he would be covered by a $5 million dollar liability insurance policy. “I talked with my Alfa agent and sent him a copy of the policy before I said, ‘Yeah, bring your little whirleybirds out here.’ Naturally, we have an Alfa farm policy but this is in addition to that because this is a specialized event.”Those unfamiliar with RC flying, as it’s often called, might wonder why liability coverage is even a concern. But as David Harkey, president of the Birmingham Helicopter Modelers, explained: “Yes, these are toys — but, no, they’re not toys: They can hurt you and maim you.”One modeler, Craig Thompson of Birmingham, has even turned his hobby into a sideline business he has on the Internet at www.HighShots.net. By fashioning a camera bracket onto one of his planes, he is able to take remote-control aerial photos for construction companies, real estate agencies, and others. An assistant plant control operator for Alabama Power, Thompson had no previous exposure to farming but says his weekend visits to Bradley’s farm has taught him plenty.”I have learned that there is a lot more to farming than just growing food, hay and raising cows,” said Thompson. “Seems today’s farming is a lot more up to date. The whole ethanol set up that farmers are beginning to use seems to be a great thing. Not only do they save on fuel costs, but I learned that the byproduct is feed for their cows. A big plus as I see it.”The club pays Bradley an annual fee to help offset the loss of hay production, although the area actually used is only about an acre or so. In return, he’s allowed club members to erect an aluminum shed where modelers can get out of the sun while preparing their flights or awaiting their turns. On any given day, it’s not unusual to see a half-dozen or so modelers gathered to fly their planes and copters. Spectators pull up folding chairs nearby or park on the roadside to watch the action.The club’s national fly-in event last March drew 51 registered pilots and more than 400 people from across the U.S. to watch aircraft of all types soar above the farm.”They’ve been absolutely great people to deal with,” said Bradley. “We haven’t had a single issue. There’s never trash. There’s never any disrespect. There’s never any abuse of the land or the animals. So everything’s been a plus-plus in my book, just great to have them here.”Likewise, the club members have enjoyed their indoctrination into farm life. “We’ve learned that cows don’t like the models,” said Harkey. “The only way you can run ’em off is when we crank one up.”In the meantime, Bradley’s learning to fly. Well, almost. “They were kind enough to give me the trainer control one time,” said Bradley. “It’s a double-unit, like a driver’s education plane. And I heard the man say several times, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I’ve got it!’ which means ‘Stop! You’re going to crash!’ They’ve assured me that they will train me how to fly and let me fly one of their less expensive planes. It’s a lot of fun.”

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