by William McNutt
Ohio’s Farm Science Review (FSR) celebrated its 51st year with a record turnout of almost 130,000 visitors, who spent three days observing 600 trade show outdoor exhibits, touring field demonstrations, and presentations by OSU and Purdue specialists. Emphasis on improving water quality was a primary theme, with a first-day panel reporting on a study of the Maumee Watershed and its effect on Lake Erie.
Chemical runoff attributed to farming practices is a major source of pollution. Farmers may need to change application practices by incorporating nutrients into the soil along with seeding, rather than broadcasting directly on top of the emerging crop. A tax on phosphorus — or on its transportation, as one of the worst offenders — is a possibility, along with soil testing to estimate danger of runoff if near a waterway. So is adopting GMO varieties with built-in nutrient enhancement not subject to runoff, even instituting a certification process for programming that limits runoff. One suggested method for compensating farmers and funding research suggests designating fishing license monies for such use.
New regulations suggested for improving water quality are not yet in force but panel members emphasized they would be manageable, though developing a nutrient management plan could be costly. Pesticide applicators already must be licensed; to do the same for fertilizer applicators could add an additional annual $50 cost to growers, while soil testing would probably add $3-4 per acre. Panelists also commented on cutting Lake Erie pollution by 40 percent in phosphorus as very possible but did not rule out the necessity of taxation, which will not be attractive to farmers. In any event, all food processors need clean water for their operations; fishing and recreation facilities near Lake Erie provide millions of dollars to local communities. It’s a complicated issue that affects all segments of society, and requires input from many segments.
On-ground Info From The Sky
We’ve all heard about satellite data obtained by manned aircraft whose overhead observation can outline drainage systems, check the effect of nutrients already applied, or determine acreage from sky-borne data. Now on the horizon is possible application by unmanned aerial vehicles, demonstrated each afternoon at FSR’s Trotter Field. We have also heard a great deal about the military application of these so-called drones as anti-terrorist weapons. Potential for peaceful application is great, according to reports given at the daily demonstrations. They can be used for site-specific data, such as crop scouting and pesticide dispersion, fertilizer usage, and monitoring crop health. No commercial use is yet approved by the Federal Aviation Administration without proper permits, however University of California-Davis has been allowed to use drones for small amounts of controlled spraying on specific sites, including vineyards. Large vegetable growers in the central valley are also interested in further applications.
Ohio State’s Review is one of several organizations granted special waivers by FAA to continue research on the use of unmanned drones in agriculture, which will command 80 percent of their usage when finalized, under the direction of Matt McCrink, a graduate student in aerospace engineering at OSU who is working on the project as part of his doctoral dissertation.
Chuck Gamble, FSR manager, emphasized the role of UAVs in the areas of water management and water quality, another major feature of FSR research and education. He said drainage has always been a key component of crop development, including how Ohio agriculture does a better job of managing water and nutrients that have a major impact on yields. Echoing the water quality panel, he said critical nutrients such as phosphorus are too expensive to let flow down the drain — and cause pollution by their runoff. Farmers want it kept in the field. Using UAV technology to secure data is an excellent way for farmers to find out what is going on in their fields.
Right now farmers can’t hire someone to “drone” over their fields, but can buy drone systems for farm use, according to the FAA. When final permits are granted, prototypes of the OSU drone can have commercial uses.
Another type demonstrated at FSR, from a company called Precision Drone, looks more like a helicopter than plane, and can transmit real time video to a computer tablet. The system cost about $18,000, according to company founders Aaron Sheller and Matt Milnes. Use of UAVs has the potential to generate $82 billion in economic activity in the next 10 years, the majority in increased income to agriculture, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. For Ohio this could mean 2700 new jobs and more than $2 billion in development by 2025.
Sheller came up with his helicopter-type version after returning to his home farm in Indiana following college graduation. He hated to walk the fields of central Indiana in July to get a limited view of what was happening with crop production. After having someone fly over their fields and take pictures, he and business partner Milnes decided to develop their own ground-controlled flyover, hoping farmers could use new technology to find compaction problems, nutrient deficiencies, and irrigation related needs that could be corrected with the improved “bird’s eye view.” Both their research and McCrink’s will provide the FAA with information needed to write the regulations for upcoming commercial operation of agricultural drones.
One of the primary benefits of drone use is expected to be in the area of water quality, as information is gathered on which parts of surveyed fields need less water or more fertilizer. Water Quality panel members reported that nutrient runoff from agricultural sources is the major cause of water quality impairment. Using the Maumee River Watershed as an example, research has shown a 218 percent increase in runoff carrying pollution. This area is home to thousands of wildlife species, provides drinking water to millions of people, plus is home territory to a billion dollar fishing industry. Of all the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is the shallowest, and the most heavily used — hence the importance of maintaining and managing water quality. New technology, such as information collection by drones, will be vital to securing this goal.
by William McNutt