Farmers getting help from
FARGO, North Dakota
(AP) -- Call it "Star Trek: The
Next Harvest": An agriculture extension agent strides into a
field and, guided by a hand-held computer and
global-positioning device, walks right to the middle of the
most productive plot in the county.
There, he pulls up a series of
overlaying computer maps and examines crop yield histories,
soil and crop conditions -- even the closest pest activity.
The details help farmers answer
the question, "If it's good here, why isn't it good somewhere
else?" said John Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University
Extension Service specialist.
The scenario should become more
common in the next three years, thanks to a $742,000 grant
from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as part
of a program to find practical applications for data NASA can
provide, Nowatzki said.
Nowatzki is using the money to
organize a state project that encourages farmers to use
satellite images and data in their operations. Scientists and
farmers also will be able to study images of fields down to 1
square meter -- enough detail to detect crop diseases and pest
If an outbreak of wheat scab is
found in one area, for example, computers could use the visual
"signature" of the disease to search maps of the rest of a
farmer's fields for similar outbreaks. The disease could be
tracked and the effectiveness of fungicides evaluated.
extension offices in several states promote the use of the
Global Positioning System on farms and ranches and help train
farmers in its use.
In North Dakota, Nowatzki plans
to hold workshops around the state over the next year and give
at least 30 county extension agents hand-held computers,
software and GPS locators. Farmers will be asked to log data
to link precise locations with the yield of crops being
Those yield maps can be
combined with other digital maps to guide farmers' production
decisions. Soil conditions for about half of North Dakota have
been logged in such digital maps, and so has information about
areas susceptible to groundwater contamination.
Daryl Rott, a farmer in
southeastern North Dakota, is already using the technology.
Soil maps show him what crops might succeed in different
areas, and the GPS coordinates tell him where to plant and
"I even use the GPS to keep my
rows straight, sometimes," Rott said.
The North Dakota State program
would allow Rott to easily compare data and maps when deciding
how to farm his fields. He could open a soil map and overlay
it with maps of where he planted different crops and sprayed
weed killers or fertilizer, then compare those to his crop
Nowatzki thinks other uses will
"That'll be the nice thing
about it, is the individual farmers and ranchers are going to
apply their own needs and their own imaginations and find uses
for it," he said.