A new generation of growers called “precision farmers” are relying on data collected from aerial and satellite remote sensing imagery to assess the current state of their fields and manage nutrients in real time. Along with Geographical Information System (GIS) maps made available to farmers, this data can inform farmers about specific characteristics of the soil, such as where it is sufficiently moist and where it has eroded over winter, to reveal which factors are limiting crop growth. Most importantly, aerial or satellite imagery can explain why a crop is under stress and how to diagnose the source.

Adequate monitoring of nutrient application both on individual farms and on a larger scale is crucial for the health of waterways. By having access to real time data imagery, farmers can quickly assess how much fertilizer and pesticide needs to be applied to specific areas in the farm, thus cutting the need to treat the field as one homogeneous unit. Data imagery visualizes different wavelengths that are absorbed and radiated from soils, helping farmers monitor different variables affecting their crops. These include soil moisture, surface temperature, photosynthetic activity and weed or pest infestations. Ultimately, when farmers use pesticides and fertilizers more efficiently and accurately, they are improving water and air quality in the process. Precision agriculture can reduce excess water use by relying on remote sensors to measure exactly how much water is being used by crops, instead of inferring their potential need from weather variables.

"[Precision farming] basically means adding the right amount of treatment at the right time and the right location within a field—that’s the precision part."

 –Susan Moran, USDA research hydrologist and member of the NASA Landsat 7 Science Team.

The USDA, NASA, and NOAA have partnered to improve large-scale farming through precision agriculture. Their goal is to improve farmers’ profits and harvest yields while reducing the over-application of chemicals and their impacts on ecosystems. Precision agriculture has also caught the attention of venture capitalists, who invested over $2.06 billion in agricultural technology during the first half of 2015. Investors have taken up the task of gathering data from individual farmers and sharing it with a network of farmers who can then compare how their performance measures up against similar growers. At the same time, there are concerns about farmer equity, as small and medium-scale farms may have less operating revenue to invest in expensive precision techniques, and about producer privacy and ownership, as this information is shared with big companies and other farmers. To achieve the largest potential benefit to both farmers and the environment, precision techniques should be combined with increased stewardship and overall conservation efforts.


Authors: Gabriela Zayas and Rebecca Chillrud