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NASA is helping farmers — how researchers are using satellite images to address big ag issues

The above map displays the estimated yield for soybean in 2022 across the Midwest, ranging from 1 ton per hectare (blue) to 2 tons per hectare (pink) up to 3 tons per hectare (yellow). The map was generated at Stanford University using Landsat and Gridded Surface Meteorological weather data. Under NASA Acres, the Stanford group will conduct a series of related studies on the effects of agriculture practices, including cover cropping and no-till farming.

It’s been a year since NASA kicked off an effort to provide farmers with useful information garnered from satellite images of Earth. The program includes research at two universities in the Midwest.

NASA Acres aims to address some of the most pressing problems facing food production — getting important data points from satellite images of Earth.

But connecting those dots will take a lot of work.

“We want to hear what producers need,” said Tom Wagner, associate director of NASA Earth Action. “We want to build the tools to address their challenges.”

Wagner spoke at an event at the University of Illinois, marking NASA Acres’ one-year anniversary. The university is one of 10 involved in the consortium’s 14 research projects, which will convert the data NASA gathers into information that farmers can use.

Research projects are focusing on a range of agricultural issues, including forecasting crops yields; monitoring the impact of regenerative ag methods such as no-till and cover crops; and tracking nitrogen levels in crops due to fertilizer usage.

University of Illinois researchers, for instance, are combining NASA satellite data with ground sampling and hyperspectral imaging conducted from airplanes to determine whether crops are getting too much or too little nitrogen.

The project’s lead researcher at the university, Professor Kaiyu Guan, is also the chief scientist for NASA Acres.

“We want to find a way to see, can we apply the right amount of fertilizer such that crops meet their needs,” said Guan, “but also don’t let too much excess nitrogen go into the environment.”

At Michigan State University, researchers are using satellite imagery to get a more precise measurement of the size of farm fields. That will help policymakers with decisions on land use planning, use of resources and agricultural modeling.

“We have always wanted to know how, where and why crop field sizes have changed,” said lead researcher David Roy in a news release that announced the launch of the project. “Twenty years ago, more farms were family owned and operated and now, they are more mechanized, and the farms tend to be larger.”

NASA Acres is helping fund 14 research projects at 10 universities throughout the U.S.
NASA Acres is helping fund 14 research projects at 10 universities throughout the U.S. NASA Acres

Satellite to farm

A key to the project’s success will be bridging the gap between the scientists who gather the information and the agronomists who will use it, according to Alyssa Whitcraft, executive director of NASA Acres.

“Remote sensing scientists often don’t understand the problem,” said Whitcraft, who is also a research professor at the University of Maryland, the lead institution in the NASA Acres effort.

She grew up in a family of winemakers and said a scientist unfamiliar with growing grapes might focus on data aimed at the wrong thing. For instance, trying to increase soil moisture for a bigger yield.

“If you put too much water and you maximize yield, you’re gonna have bad wine,” she said. “And so it’s sort of like engineering the solution to a problem that nobody asked for.”

Ken Dalenberg grows corn and soybeans near Mansfield in central Illinois.

Back in the 1990s, he served on a NASA advisory committee that put together one of its agency’s surveys that map out the agency’s goals for the next 10 years.

Today, Dalenberg said he doesn’t get any data directly from NASA, but he knows that many of the places he relies on for information rely on the space agency’s information.

“The universities use NASA data, the (USDA’s) Economic Research Service uses NASA data,” Dalenberg said. “When you look at people like Cargill or ADM, that have a vested interest in growing crops, they use NASA data.”

The data, whether from images taken from satellites, or planes flying overhead, help farmers make a variety of decisions when properly interpreted, according to John Reifsteck, another central Illinois farmer.

The former chairman and president of Growmark Inc., which sells agricultural supplies and services, said several companies are providing imagery to farmers, whether it be satellite or aerial or drones – then pairing that imagery with decision-making tools.

“In other words, looking at a map doesn’t really help you very much, most of the time,” Reifsteck said, “but, if you can do an analysis of what’s going on in that aerial imagery, then it can provide some useful information.”

Helping individual farmers now

Some NASA data doesn’t need to be accessed through intermediaries.

The OpenET website, which pre-dates NASA Acres by a couple of years, allows farmers to look up their own farmland to see free data on water conditions.

It can be used by farmers for irrigation management on individual fields or for developing water accounting and conservation programs at the regional, watershed or basic scale.

“One of the amazing things about satellite data is that sometimes we get down to like the tens of centimeters level or more,” said Wagner. “And for a few datasets, you can see individual fields.”

But Wagner said data sources like OpenET are just the beginning.

He expects the NASA Acres program to do even more for farmers with the space agency’s data, especially as the research projects target particular ag issues.

“I think over the next five years plus, we’re going to see some real changes for agriculture in terms of what we can do with data from space,” he said.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.
Picture of Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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