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Mapping our future
Global positioning systems give people around the Earth a new tool for making where and what they’re doing a simpler task

Grand Forks Herald
Written By:  Curt Anderson
December 4, 1997

Gary Wagner uses laptop and satellites to create mapsOrbiting thousands of miles above the Earth, a satellite snaps an infrared image of a wheat field that helps Crookston farmer Gary Wagner decide how much fertilizer to use. 

Using a laptop computer, Wagner plugs the satellite data into a program that combines it with other information such as historic yields, soil moisture and the slope of his land.

A global positioning system receiver on his tractor uses other satellites to determine his precise location in the field.

As he drives the tractor across his 4,000 acre Red River Valley farm, Wagner’s computerized system automatically spreads fertilizer in the exact amounts needed for the crop - more in some places, less in others.

“We’re probably using the same amounts, but we’re applying fertilizer where its needed - not just a blanket application,” Wagner said. 

He gets better yields out of his wheat, barley, soybeans and sugar beets.  The environment is protected because less fertilizer is wasted and winds up to leaching into wells and rivers.  An ultimately, Wagner’s profits go up.

This emerging technology, known collectively as precision agriculture, uses satellites, computers, lasers, ground-based monitors and yield counters to bring in the latest science to the ancient art of farming.

In Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, satellites analyze light reflected from Earth to help rancher Jim Foreman determine when range land grass contains the most nutrients for his cattle.  If the grass is more nutritious, Foreman doesn’t have to buy as much hay for the winter.

“It helps in moving the cattle around. The better grasses, the better weight gain,” Foreman said.  “The better condition they’re in, the better they can withstand weather or disease.”

Although agriculture has used aerial and satellite photography for years, for the most part, its large-scale level of detail has only been useful for big farmers in limited ways.  Farmers now used data from 24 satellites that originally were developed for the Pentagon.

Next year, NASA will launch two satellites - and private firms are planning more - that can analyze parcels of land as small as about 1 yard in length.

“You’re going to get a lot more information,” said Alex Tuyahov, application research manager for NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth.  “I’m certain it’s going to have much wider applicability.”

Just scratching surface

Right now, farmers are only scratching the surface of the new technology.  Only about 10 percent of America’s 1.9 million farmers have computers, and high costs of investing in new equipment are a major impediment.

A National Research Council study found that raw satellite imagery can cost $80,000 a season but that once processed for specific fields, it can be sold for about $8 an acre. Corn fertilizers, in comparison, cost an average of $46 an acre.

“There’s wonderful technology out there nowadays, but there’s a little bit of a question how it will play out as a consumer good,” said Lee Johnson, a California State University at Monterey Bay scientist based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in San Jose.

“Right now, farmers feel there’s a bit of information overload,” said George Seielstad, associate dean at the University of North Dakota’s Center for Aerospace Sciences.  “The next step is to integrate all this information so a farmer can just glance at something and know what to do.”

In California’s wine-rich Napa Valley, NASA has been working with Robert Mondavi Vineyards and a new technology company called Terra Spase on practical ways to use digital aerial photography that can detect various bands of the light spectrum as reflected by plants from 14,000 feet up.

In one project known as CRUSH, these light bands are analyzed to detect the vigor of chardonnay and pinot noir vines through the thickness of the leaf canopy. The canopy’s health helps Mondavi evaluate whether the grapes are mature enough to pick and what their acid levels will be.

Times dictates changes

In the old days, when there were farmers and smaller farms, it was easier to know each piece of ground immediately. Farmers kept what areas needed more irrigation, where to cut back on fertilizer and the like.

Wagner, the Minneosta farmer, said that when his father died, it took 15 years to figure out some of those things on his large spread.  With the new technology, he said, it is available at his fingertips.

“The next generation isn’t going to have a start from ground zero again,” Wagner said. “It is difficult.  It is expensive.  On the other hand, I compare it a lot to a college education of your occupation, the better job you can do.”

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