Posted July 20,
2004: The latest agricultural technologies given
coverage by mainstream media include new herbicides, pesticides,
and genetically-engineered crops. Few if any of these items
are permitted on an organic farm. But while they may not receive
as much press attention, there are many technological advances
that can improve the health and productivity of organic farms.
One of these is satellite imagery.
At the latest count, twenty-three satellites circle the globe.
Countless aircraft make shorter trips each day. Both of these,
along their routes, may photograph the land below. The technology
has advanced greatly, especially in the last few years, so these
photos are far better than might be expected from pictures taken
at such great distances. Farmers can easily recognize many features
of their land. The photos can show the history and present condition
of landscapes and cities, and can reveal threats to crops long
before even the most observant farmer could spot them.
For Lee and Noreen Thomas of Moorhead, Minnesota, images
like these have provided an opportunity to improve the productivity
and stewardship of their 1,200-acre farm. The Thomases' crop
rotation includes soybeans, blue corn, popcorn, wheat and
barley. They also plant a variety of heirloom tomatoes, lettuces,
peas, squash and many other garden vegetables for 'green baskets'
to deliver to their neighbors.
The Thomases have worked diligently to care for their land
and sustain their farm business. Noreen wrote and received
a grant to learn about exporting; and the Thomases now direct
market to Japanese buyers through a company called Northland
Organic, along with a number of other companies like SK Foods.
Often, just talking to other organic farmers helps the couple
find new buyers for their crops.
As important as these markets are to the farm, stewardship
is just as critical. Because the Thomases' farm is nestled
alongside the Buffalo River, erosion is a concern and they
watch the banks carefully. Some of their neighbors use pesticides
and build dikes along the river. All these factors make the
satellite images useful. The telltale photos show when something
is going wrong, whether it is pests, spray drift or flooding.
Noreen has also used this technology to educate her neighbors—both
farmers and non-farmers—about the fragile and changing
nature of the planet we all live on. She has worked tirelessly
to understand what’s revealed in the images and to put
that knowledge to use.
Putting technology to work
Noreen’s first exposure to aerial imaging technology
was at a conference, browsing the booth of the Upper Midwest
Aerospace Consortium (UMAC). UMAC is funded by NASA and eight
universities in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, and
is centrally managed from the University of North Dakota (UND).
At the booth, scientists displayed satellite-generated photos
and explained the on-farm applications of the shots.
“My initial thought about this was that it was kind
of pie-in-the-sky,” says Noreen. She wondered what kind
of bill she’d get if she dared to use it. Yet she was
curious enough to ask, and found out that the images are available
free of charge. The difficulty is in understanding what they
Noreen's curiosity led to an arrangement between the Thomases
and UMAC. Lee and Noreen would take a class, which cost $25,
to learn to read and interpret the satellite images. Then
they would share what they learned with others in their community,
and give ongoing feedback to UMAC regarding the benefits and
practical applications of the technology.
The Thomases were the first organic producers in the area
to use UMAC’s imagery. They are also part of what Santhosh
Seelan, research associate professor at the University of
North Dakota and lead scientist for UMAC’s Crop and
Range Alert System, refers to as a learning community, comprised
of farmers and others who’ve taken the UMAC class and
are actively using the imaging technology. These individuals
continue to meet regularly to share experiences and insights.
“The first year we offered classes, we had 20 farmers
sign up,” Seelan notes. “Last year, we had 200
farmers.” To this day nearly 300 farmers have been through
the course; the numbers increase each year through word of
mouth about the benefits of the program—and through
the efforts of people like the Thomases.
In addition keeping in touch with the learning community,
Noreen studies and interprets the images with other farmers
in her area, both conventional and organic. She’s happy
to help her neighbors learn how to better manage their farms.
Plus, she has the right approach—she tells people how
they can use the information.
From the beginning, Noreen says, she knew what she’d
hear from farmers: “What am I going to get from this
to make my time and effort pay off?” The answer: the
ability to precisely identify and deal with problems in farm
Reading satellite and aerial images
Satellite images and aerial photos offer complementary types
of information. Photos are limited in range but can be high
resolution, offering a clear, readily-recognizable illustration
of land features. Satellite images, by contrast, look very
strange at first: their colors are called false colors, because
they do not match what our eyes see. Satellite sensors detect
electromagnetic radiation (EMR), which includes both visible
light and non-visible wavelengths such as infrared; when a
picture is created from satellite data, colors are assigned
to different segments of the EMR spectrum. Yellow, for instance,
can indicate heat radiation, often a sign of infestation.
Wetness and flooding usually appear black. Varying shades
of red show vigor or lack of vigor. Spray drift may appear
as a brownish burgundy. The Thomases tap all of this information,
and use it in concert with global positioning data in the
tractor. In this way, they can add composted manure exactly
and only where it’s needed, or spot-apply an organic
herbicide such as citric acid (lemon juice) to eliminate thistle.
Improving drainage: Aerial images often
reveal ongoing problems with standing water, shown in black.
These can be assessed, and ditching can be modified to allow
for better drainage. Because the images have been available
for 30 years, the history of any piece of property can be
examined before it’s rented or purchased.
Near the Thomases, a group of farmers wanted a large dike
installed. Noreen was able to produce satellite images showing
that this dike would make the Thomas farm even wetter. Locating
this historical evidence helped prevent the construction of
Pests, disease and nutrient deficiency: “The satellites
can also see things that we can’t,” Noreen notes.
For example, the greens visible to the eye—the level
of chlorophyll present in leaves—may not reveal problems
that satellite imagery can detect. When lack of vigor is present,
it is obvious when looking at an image. Any problems with
insects or disease will also be apparent. Farmers can zoom
in on affected areas in the images and then head to the fields
to verify what exactly is going on. Targeting problem areas
and implementing compensatory measures in those areas alone
can help farmers reduce inputs and save money.
Weather damage: The photos can also add
weight to crop insurance claims. Wind and hail damage, for
example, can be clearly seen on the satellite images. “A
copy of a downloaded image can be used to convince an insurance
adjuster to give some kind of reimbursement,” notes
The Thomases themselves have benefited from this. One year,
their alfalfa crop was drowned after the fields flooded from
persistent, heavy rains. Including a satellite image with
their insurance claim simplified the process.
“Insurance companies like information about a problem
as soon as possible,” says Seelan. He recommends that
farmers send in images showing evidence of damage as soon
as they have them, with a note telling the insurer that there
will likely be crop loss.
Buffer strips: Unfortunately, the crop insurance
typically carried by organic farmers doesn’t cover pesticide
or herbicide contamination. Even so, satellite images can
help an organic farmer prove that buffer strips are in place
or determine if they require enhancement. Furthermore, notes
Thomas, “Having an eye in the sky keeps people more
honest." She adds that if a farmer has nothing to hide,
then there will be no reason to worry about being photographed
Drift: In the Red River Valley in 2001,
there was a case of spray damage on a conventional farm. A
crop-duster applied a desiccant to a potato field (this is
commonly done to accelerate die-back of the potato tops prior
to harvest), and accidentally sprayed parts of an adjoining
sugar beet field as well. The pilot who did the spraying and
the sugar beet farmer whose fields were affected agreed that
damage had occurred, but they needed a way to quantify the
impact. “You could easily determine from the aerial
picture which part of the crop was damaged,” Seelan
notes. In combination with sugar beet samples, the aerial
image facilitated a quick settlement between the two parties.
Keeping in mind what really matters
Working with satellite and aerial image technology has allowed
the Thomases to take their concern for the environment one
step further, beyond organic production. Four years ago, the
Thomases realized they had to make some changes in their operation
if they wanted to stay competitive with larger farms. At the
same time, they became aware of the impacts of conventional
farming on farm families' health. Farm families, they learned,
have a rate of birth defects three times higher than the rest
of the population. “We had to ask ourselves: What are
we doing to our children?” says Noreen.
For more information about agricultural applications
of satellite and aerial imaging technologies, visit
the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium website at
UMAC collects both public (usually free) and private
(usually fee-based) image databases for access from
its website. (Free Viewfinder software is also available
if needed.) For those in the UMAC region, regular
classes are offered to help users interpret the
Today, the Thomases invite Boy Scouts to their farm to learn
about soil erosion and help plant red willows along the Buffalo
River; they're also working with a geography teacher in Moorhead,
Mike Benson, to bring information about satellite and Global
Position Systems technology to the local schools. As a farmer,
planting seeds is second nature to Noreen; she says she enjoys
sharing her knowledge and message of stewardship with young
Lee and Noreen's family is the fifth generation of Thomases
to farm along the banks of the Buffalo River. They hope their
children will continue to farm the land, and preserve it for
the generations to come. In all of their decisions, Noreen
and Lee think about the children—because they know that
ultimately, the farm and the planet will belong to them.
Deborah Hyk is a freelance writer based in central Minnesota.