Tractors, Satellites, and Pickup Trucks

Tractors, Satellites, and Pickup Trucks

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Neal Isbell prepares for his workday by loading his trusty pickup truck with the everyday essentials of farming: his cap, jacket, extra boots, a box lunch and his dog. And don’t forget the laptop computer and a GPS receiver. “The laptop is now an essential part of our farming operation and I have a hard time keeping the dog from stepping on it,” laughs Isbell. Isbell’s family has been farming in northern Alabama for six generations — but Isbell isn’t running the farm as his forefathers did. He is one of a new generation of growers called “precision farmers.”

Precision farmers use data from satellites and high-flying aircraft to pinpoint problems with drainage, insects and weeds. They learn where fertilizers are needed — and where they’re not needed. They discover pests — and spray only the infested areas. It’s a remarkably “green” approach to farming that is both friendly to the environment and profitable to the farmer. “We’re seeing some real savings in fertilizer applications,” says Isbell, “and our fields are more uniformly productive than ever.”

Despite the advantages of precision farming, however, growers like Isbell remain uncommon. Many farmers simply don’t know the technology exists, while others aren’t convinced that it makes economic sense.

Hoping to change that, NASA launched a program in 1999 called Ag20/20 — an industry-government partnership led by NASA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). “We’re educating farmers about precision farming technology and we’re collecting hard evidence that it pays for itself,” explains Rodney McKellip, who directs the program from NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Ag20/20 partners include the National Corn Growers Association, the National Cotton Council, the United Soybean Board and the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Precision farmer Neal Isbell is a cotton grower with 4200 acres under his care. Such expansive farms are difficult to canvass simply by walking or driving across the fields; they benefit from the “big picture” a satellite or an aircraft can provide.

“We use commercial satellites, like Ikonos and QuickBird,” says McKellip, “as well as cameras mounted in aircraft.” Sometimes NASA lends one of its own aircraft to the cause, but more often Ag20/20 encourages precision farming teams to use local flying services — for example, Agri-Vision, a company in Columbus, Indiana, that collects digital images for agriculture in the Midwest.

The cameras used for precision farming are not ordinary. They can photograph a field as it appears not only at wavelengths of visible light, which the human eye can see, but also at near-infrared and thermal infrared wavelengths.