Public-Private Venture Results in Technology That Could Enhance Resilience

January 22, 2020

The formidable task of sustainably feeding the nearly 10 billion people expected to populate our planet in 30 years, especially in a changing climate, will require new measures that might have been inconceivable only 20 years ago.

But the reality is that the strain being placed on the world’s resources – by higher temperatures and droughts, volatile winds and wildfires, torrential rains and flooding, and other threats to agricultural production – requires deep innovation to give growers the best odds in taking on often unpredictable conditions.

A promising project now underway that is demonstrating the means to enhance climate resilience – one of the three pillars of climate smart agriculture (along with sustainable production and reduced greenhouse gases, or GHGs) – is being conducted by USDA at its 7,000-acre farm at the department’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland.

There, in partnership with Microsoft, the department has situated high-tech sensors on some of its corn and soybean acreage to record data that can be studied by scientists, who can use the information to help shape and develop practices that farmers can adopt to maximize their crop production, even as growing conditions change.

The sensors are one of the tools used by FarmBeats, a program that also uses drones, satellites and tractors to collect data. Their findings are fed into cloud-based artificial intelligence models that provide a detailed picture of conditions on the farm. The technology overcomes the lack of internet access in many rural areas by transmitting data via TV “white spaces,” the unused broadcasting frequencies between television channels, to an edge device at the farm and onto the Microsoft cloud.

The Beltsville project is a pilot focused on cover crops, grown during the off-season to limit weeds, manage pests, prevent erosion and improve soil for the main crops. At the Beltsville farm, sensors are measuring soil temperature, humidity and acidity. The sensors also track water levels in the soil, which help determine how much water is retained after increasingly common heavy rainfalls and in turn, inform water budgets for a growing season. A weather station tracks air temperature, precipitation and wind speed, and a fitted tractor will assess plant health with an array of sensors that will assess crop heights, biomass and greenness.

FarmBeats is a one-stop shop that for the first time offers scientists a mechanism for data aggregation, visualization and analytics in the cloud. The system combines sensor data with imagery from drones and satellites that will help the USDA researchers better understand how soil conditions, weather and management intersect to drive crop performance and long-term conservation of water and soil.

FarmBeats takes into account the spatial variability in a field, pulling together extensive – and site-specific – soil, topography and climate data, then generating critical, spot-on information that can be used by growers in a timely way to counter the sometimes harsh conditions that a changing climate can present.

USDA currently operates more than 90 research stations and employs some 2,000 researchers and scientists around the country. Because of what will be the program’s availability department-wide, officials say FarmBeats can help eliminate the “silo” effect of research being contained at individual study sites and labs, but not shared among department scientists. By moving that data into a centralized, secure Cloud repository designed to build, test, deploy and manage applications and services, USDA can then capture historical and future data that can be helpful to researchers,

Microsoft officials acknowledge the FarmBeats pilot program with USDA is an important test case, especially given its high profile at the USDA Beltsville facility, near the nation’s capital (the program is also in private preview and being used at a handful of farms in several states).

The creation of this program is a good example of the importance of private- and public-sector cooperation, as well as federal investments in climate innovation and technologies needed to build resilience into our agricultural systems. FarmBeats holds great promise to become another “tool” in a farmer’s toolbox, helping to meet the needs of a growing population and ensure the production of food, feed, fiber and energy in what may be uncertain conditions going forward. SfL urges federal authorization and appropriation committees to increase support for this type of cutting-edge research and enable the delivery of the widest possible range of goods and ecosystem services from our national agricultural lands.

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