Farm program aims to get the bugs out

Not long ago, farmers choosing the best areas to spray pesticides were limited to standing on the back of a pickup and scanning the field as far as possible. Now, a new grant program administered jointly by the Agriculture Department and NASA is designed to provide a better vantage point.

The two agencies have released a request for proposals for the Application of Geospatial and Precision Technologies Program, which will support research into how remote sensing and geographic information systems can help farmers better manage their crops, save money, increase yields and protect the environment.

For example, NASA uses remote sensing measurements obtained from airplanes to help a Mississippi farmer control the lygus bug, which feeds on cotton plants, said Nathan Sovik, applications research and development manager at NASA's Stennis Space Center and one of the program's administrators.

Based on those measurements, scientists can map where the farmer's healthy vegetation is, Sovik said. The farmer's variable rate sprayer and Global Positioning System-mounted tractor then help him use that information to apply pesticides only in areas that need it.

"Traditionally, farmers have taken a rough guess at where would be safe to apply," Sovik said. Geospatial technologies "help the farmer identify the areas of stress in crops and focus their attention." That saves money on the costs of "inputs" — such as pesticides, fertilizers and water — and limits their environmental impact, he said.

Nearly one-fourth of farmers today use some kind of "precision farming" techniques, said Raymond Knighton, national program leader for soil and water at the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, which is administering the USDA's portion of the program. With farms hundreds of times larger than a century ago, he said farmers can no longer assess their crops by strolling through their fields.

Remote sensing equipment on satellites, airplanes and tractors themselves can dramatically improve crop yields, Knighton said.

A panel of experts will review proposed projects under the new program, and the USDA and NASA will select from those that the panel endorses. Each project has a ceiling of $2 million and is expected to last around four years.

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