R URAL GILTNER — Looking for ways to provide assistance to farmers, a group of NASA representatives visited a farm near Giltner Aug. 23 to learn about the data agriculture producers use.
Although the National Aeronautics and Space Administration often is viewed as an organization looking out into the skies, NASA’s Karen St. Germain said much of the data gathered is from closer to home.
“The planet we study most is our own planet,” she said.
St. Germain is the director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, which uses satellites and other technologies to collect an enormous amount of data about weather patterns, climate, water and air quality, cloud cover, soil, air moisture and more.
She said dozens of instruments on satellites orbiting Earth are continuously measuring a variety of items around the globe.
The information captured is free and open to the public, where farmers, ranchers, agriculture technology companies and others can use this data to make management decisions.
One example is the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which has created a biweekly U.S. Drought Monitor to provide information on drought conditions across the United States.
“One of the really important uses of that data is agriculture,” St. Germain said.
The Giltner group discussed how farmers use satellite data from NASA or other sources. They also brainstormed ways to make the data more useful in the future.
St. Germain said they are hoping to learn what kind of information farmers can use to make better decisions about planting, irrigation and management practices.
“Producers and farmers have a lot of decisions to make every day,” she said. “They don’t need anyone to make the decisions. They just need information to help them make those decisions.”
It was the second visit for the group’s trip to Nebraska, which also included farms near Mead and Lexington.
The group met at Hunnicutt Farms west of Giltner.
Zach Hunnicutt, who operates the farm with his brother and their father, is the fifth generation to cultivate the family land.
“Having a visit from NASA is a pretty unique opportunity,” he said. “It was partly out of curiosity and to see what intersect there is between NASA and agriculture.”
Hunnicutt told the group about several aspects of the farming operation and the information needed to be monitored to increase efficiency.
They have used satellite imagery, as well as photographs taken from an airplane or with use of a drone, to get a bird’s-eye view of the land.
He said they are constantly looking for new ways to measure water needs more accurately or determine soil quality.
While weather forecasts are critical in planning a water schedule, Hunnicutt said, the most significant time period is four to seven days in advance to allow time to adjust to precipitation changes.
One way he uses technology is in the remote management of center pivot irrigation systems. Instead of driving from field to field to check pivots, he can just check an app on his phone.
“It’s made our labor much less,” he said. “Our irrigation is much more efficient.”
As agriculture advances are made, the Hunnicutts are among the first to consider changes.
The family has participated in numerous studies with UNL. Some advances are cost-prohibitive, but they include technology that makes sense.
“We look at what will be most efficient,” he said. “We’re always looking to see what we can do better.”
Brad Doorn, NASA’s agriculture and water resources program manager, said they wanted to talk directly to producers to make their data more accessible and find ways to make improvements in agriculture.
“We know the solutions start here,” he said.
Learning what kinds of data are useful to farmers can guide research questions in the future, Doorn said.
Laura Thompson, a Nebraska Extension educator in Falls City who serves as a statewide coordinator, said the Hunnicutts and other farms on the tour have all done studies with UNL.
She said the data collected during those field tests provide hard numbers to go with new concepts in agriculture.
She said the university was glad to work with NASA to arrange the tour and offer a firsthand look at farming in Nebraska.
“It’s a great opportunity to share what’s going on on farms and look at the needs of the future,” she said.
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