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Global Trends

Farmers getting help from NASA

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 damage.

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.

University agriculture 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 harvested.

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 fertilize.

"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 yields.

Nowatzki thinks other uses will come.

"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.

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