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County farmers learn how to use satellite data

Forrest Melton from NASA speaks to a group of farmers from the San Benito County area Thursday about new satellite technology used to document water and how it's being used in the fields.

More than two dozen local growers gathered for a presentation by a NASA researcher Feb. 9 about satellite technology that could help them monitor irrigation of crops – and increase yield while lowering water usage.

Forrest Melton, a researcher with the NASA Ames Research Center and a faculty member at California State University, Monterey Bay, talked with growers about the new technology for 30 minutes before offering time for questions.

“We’ve built a system that takes satellite data and turns it into real-time info,” Melton said.

Melton said that while much of NASA’s research is focused on space exploration, 10 percent of its research is focused on earth sciences.

“One major objective is to understand what is happening on earth,” Melton said.

The TOPS program is modeling software that brings together a variety of technologies such as weather and climate forecasting, ecosystem modeling, and satellite remote sensing to enhance management decisions related to floods and other natural disasters, according to the NASA Ames Research Center website.

He said the technology should be ready to launch for public use next year.

“There are a whole new set of apps (applications) we are hoping to have ready next year,” he said.

The way it works, growers will be able to look at data on irrigation and evaporation rates for any plots of land they farm. As with other map searches, they can put in an address, an intersection or coordinates. The area for which data is available includes 15 million acres, covering all of San Benito and much of the Central Valley. It comes from three satellites, called Terra, Landsat7 and Landsat5. Landsat5 is an older satellite and will soon be replaced with Landsat8.

“You can look at things your eyes don’t see,” he said, of the satellite images, which allow farmers to zoom in to parcels. “California still leads the nation in produce. It has a very diverse agricultural (industry) with more than 450 commodities.”

He said the state was selected by NASA as the focus of the research because of its strong agriculture industry, its diverse agriculture and because it has limited water-storage capacity. He said while Colorado has reservoirs to store up to five years worth of water, California can only store enough for one year.

NASA researchers have partnered with some growers, mostly in the Central Valley, to install sensors in the fields so they can see how much the satellite data matches with what the sensors are reading in terms of water usage.

“So far, all the data has been encouraging,” he said. “The partnerships with growers have been key. We welcome feedback and appreciate feedback.”

Some studies have shown that using the data is helpful for farmers. U.C. Berkeley students have looked at crop yields and water usage by farmers before they started using satellite data and after. Melton said the growers saw an 8 to 10 percent increase in crop yield while using less water.

The software will be interactive so that growers can put in a specific type of crop to get more accurate data on what the optimum amount of watering would be. He did note that one of the kinks the researchers are still working on is the interference of cloud cover in the data.

At the end of the meeting, Melton asked for questions but the growers in attendance did not have any. He then asked them for feedback on how they would like to receive data – through email, via mobile phone or another method.

One grower said that he would like to use the technology but that it might be difficult to incorporate it into his already busy schedule. He said it would be helpful to have someone come out to set up the program for the farmers – selecting the fields they want to track and the information they want to use.

“Being out with growers I understand how demanding and busy you are during the growing season,” Melton said.

Shawn Novack, the water conservation program manager for the Water Resources Association of San Benito County, coordinated the presentation by Melton to coincide with an earlier morning workshop for local growers.

“It’s a great turnout,” he said. “Thanks for the interest. I am trying to bring speakers in on new technology that can help in the field.”