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Scaling Satellite Tools for Agricultural Decision Support in the US

Using EO to support Supply Chain & Ecosystem Service Market in USA

Applied GeoSolutions partner Dr. Nathan Torbick works to use satellite earth observations to scale tools for irrigation management and conservation practices with the USDA and industry partners across the Lower Mississippi.

Farmers need to make decisions on irrigation and soil moisture, tillage practices, cover crops, and crop rotations, which all take time and cost money. Can satellite data and technologies, along with other tools, such as big data software and process-based crop modeling, help create cost effective tools to reduce their burden, and therefore inform and optimize these management decisions and outcomes?  

Dr. Torbick, a Harvest partner and director at Applied Geosolutions, specializes in developing and growing decision support tools and measurement reporting and verification platforms for diverse end user groups across commercial industry, government and academic sectors. He is co-leading domestic strategy for NASA Harvest and leads a project on SAR Optical Data Fusion for addressing data information gaps. Last month, he presented the Goddard Applied Sciences seminar on “Scaling Agricultural Decision Support Tools with Moderate Resolution Satellite Earth Observations”.

Open access operational synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and optical satellite earth observations (EO) are key to scaling the next generation of agricultural decision support tools. Decisions such as irrigation, pest management and conservation practices are made at the field scale or the livelihood scale – farmers therefore need information at this moderate resolution scale to make sound decisions that directly relate to their fields. Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV) platforms are thus key to growing the conservation agriculture economy. They can serve as a bridge between tech, sustainable resource use, and industry.

Tools that come out of this work can help optimize and highlight tradeoffs for farmers, finding the most cost-effective outcomes, greater income or ones that achieve better crop health, soil moisture, or environmental health. Ultimately, this allows policymakers to find ways to encourage farmers for best management practices through subsidies or premiums on products, improving outcomes. Public-private partnerships can help achieve scaling of these platforms.

Rice Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV) and the Use of SAR

Rice is a major staple and tied to health and livelihoods for billions of people around the world, so has been emphasized as an early example of the use of decision support MRV systems; NASA Harvest has helped drive this effort forward. The Rice MRV identifies the location, yield and timing of rice crops, their health and productions, as well as relevant sustainability practices. Many different satellites, products and monitoring systems are utilized to gather and interpret this information, including Sentinel satellites, Harmonized Landsat-Sentinel 2 (HLS), and SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive). These metrics are combined in the MRV.

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) can penetrate clouds and provides information at the 10m resolution, taken every few days. It is also compelling to use due to its sensitivity to structure, orientation, roughness and moisture, providing a more complete picture of the target. With new satellites from the European Space Agency (ESA), the upcoming launch of NISAR, PALSAR 2, 4 and RADARSAT continuity mission, SAR is becoming more functional, and should be adapted and used much more often.

Lower Mississippi Public Private Partnership

A public private partnership has been formed across the mid-southern USA, including USDA and industry partners. Farmers in Arkansas often have several generations of farmers in their family, and are interested in being good environmental stewards. Most farmers grow a number of crops, including corn and soy in addition to rice, which may be used for sushi.

The practice of alternate wedding and drying (AWD) of rice was examined for its impacts. It was found to increase, or at least not decrease, rice yields, to improve soil aeration, decrease water use, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% and reduce arsenic. This practice could therefore save money as well as reduce unnecessary use of water and impacts on the environment. 

Plans for 2019 & Applied EO Tools for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In 2019, Applied GeoSolutions is continuing to grow the public-private partnership across the mid-Southern United States. Dr. Torbick is mapping irrigation, soil moisture and adding evapotranspiration to the portfolio of work. Treatment plots are expanding from rice to soy, where irrigation and other management practices are controlled for 90 40-acre blocks, all paired for comparison.

The crop MRV system provides direct linkages to decisions and process. Low power wide area (LPWA) Hub are being developed, which are a kind of internet of agriculture/technology with spread out sensors (<$100). The bottleneck is transmitting the data from the sensor to the database. These hubs therefore aggregate a network of these sensors.

UAVSAR flights started flying this month (April 2019), with 12-day repeats out of Houston, a morning and evening loop. A dozen sites are covered, including 3 in the Mississippi, which have the field network sensors. This is all part of the launch of NISAR, which is expected in 2021. A major goal is wall to wall soil moisture at field scale metrics by 2020, in addition to supporting the development of sustainable rice products in the market.

EO data over the next decades are potentially critical to achieving several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and addressing “grand challenges” such as poverty, hunger, health and climate change. Moderate resolution EO may be the link that ties all of these needs together to achieve usable tools for farmers and other decision makers.

Watch Dr. Torbick's presentation at NASA GSFC on Scaling Agricultural Decision Support Tools with Moderate Resolution Satellite Earth Observations

News Date
Apr 23, 2019