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A Crop of Satellites and Computers Is Helping Farmers Manage Fields More Efficiently


If agronomist John LeBoeuf had waited until the leaves of his cantaloupe plants turned yellow, it would have been too late.

As it was, before shriveling set in, LeBoeuf converted aerial images of the field into computer-enhanced maps that revealed an overly dry area, prompting him to douse that patch with extra irrigation water. The result? A greater-than-expected harvest of juicy melons.

In the name of "precision farming," LeBoeuf has embraced a bushelbasketful of satellite and computer technologies designed to enhance the efficiency, productivity and profitability of Fordel Inc., the big grower for which he works in Mendota, Calif.

He is one of a rising number of California crop advisors and farmers who are following the lead of Midwestern corn, wheat and soybean growers in using emerging technologies to better manage crops and land.

They are using such tools as the global positioning system, or GPS, a network of satellites controlled by the Defense Department that can help a ground-based unit pinpoint its location; geographic information systems, or GIS, software that analyzes and interprets data; and remote sensing, the capturing of images or other data from airplanes, satellites or ground-based sensors that are not in direct contact with the object or landscape.

Many of these uses have sprung from decades' worth of military and weather research conducted by the Pentagon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, universities and private research centers.

Call these the fields of high-tech dreams. If you plant it, experts will come and help you dissect a wealth of information about it--variations in soil types, soil pH, drainage and nutrient requirements and how all these conditions affect crop yields over time.

Proponents are agog at the prospects for outmaneuvering Mother Nature to boost harvests and better manage costs for fertilizers, pesticides and water by using them only when and where necessary. The bottom line, they maintain, will be a better bottom line for farmers and for the environment.

"It's very exciting," said Shrini Upadhyaya, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis. "Agriculture has been low tech. This gives us a way to bring high tech into ag."

For decades, scientists and researchers have talked glowingly of the potential for "eye in the sky" imagery and computer technology to join forces to aid agriculture, the nation's biggest industry. With more precise information, the reasoning went, growers could manage small problem areas differently and track yields by specific locations over several years. But only recently have GPS, GIS and remote sensing matured enough for commercial use in agriculture.

The push into this brave new world of farming is giving rise to a bumper crop of business opportunities. Equipment makers, notably Case Corp. and Deere & Co., have begun installing GPS units and yield-monitoring equipment on harvesters that can then use satellite signals to help determine their locations in a field or orchard.

GIS companies, such as Environmental Systems Research Institute in Redlands, have developed software applications that enable growers to assess field conditions and how those relate to yield.

Meanwhile, within the next year, two Colorado companies plan to launch the first high-resolution private-sector satellites to bolster the Defense Department's 24-satellite Landsat system and other systems backed by the French and Indian governments. And dozens of consulting, mapping, measuring, monitoring and sampling companies have sprung up to help dazed farmers figure it all out.

Even skeptics acknowledge that "precision farming," or "site-specific farming," is the wave of the future. Growers, they acknowledge, will routinely use information gathered from satellites orbiting the Earth, and GPS could be used to pinpoint areas of a field where pests appear most prevalent, allowing the grower to spot-treat.

In addition to farmers, others are expected to tap the trove of knowledge that can be gleaned from GPS and GIS. Crop-dusting outfits such as Inland Crop Dusters Inc. in Shafter, Calif., are already using the technology to eliminate the need for human "flaggers," who must wear cumbersome protective gear and respirators as they signal to pilots where to drop pesticides and other chemicals.

Other potential customers include insurance companies, lenders, commodity speculators, investors and farm chemical suppliers.

But adapting the technologies to California's diverse conditions and crops--everything from tomatoes to nuts to melons to cotton to rice--is proving problematic.

"In the Midwest, they have grain crops that are nonirrigated or use low-cost irrigation," said Michael Cahn, a farm advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension for Sutter and Yuba counties. "The fields are very large, and there are only three or four main crops."

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