Remote Sensing and Crop Mapping: The Future for Market Predictions

When it comes to my farm, sometimes I can’t imagine the technology available to me.  I say that in the context of my years farming.  Back in the 1960s I did all the usual things on a cash crop farm in southwestern Ontario.  I used to help plant a crop in a cloud of dust and then cultivate soybeans almost all summer and pull weeds.  Some of those tasks were very difficult at the time and I remember imagining if some day it might be a better way.  Little did I know 40 years later in 2016 the world would be so different.  In fact, there would be great change come along that would make my life a little bit easier on the farm.

Life of course has evolved.  Auto steer as far as I’m concerned is right out of the twilight zone.  In my wildest dreams I could have never imagined that.  However, now it’s getting a little bit old.  I don’t steer anything on the farm anymore and I like it that way.  Of course, there is everything else from computers to pesticides the list is endless.  In my other career as an agricultural economist the computer technologies have changed things too.  Even measurement of crop size is changing for the good.

I’m referring to remote sensing, a new technology where one constructs “crop digital maps” using optical Landsat-5, AWiFS, DMC) and radar (Radarsat-2) based satellite images of crops.  Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada started working in this in 2009 and now have a target accuracy of at least 85% of being right.  In other words, they take satellite and radar information, correlate that with ground observations on the ground and then make very accurate predictions on crop type and size across Canada.  This information is archived and in future years predicting crop type and size across Canada will become more accurate and cost effective.

The results are digital crop maps, which are beautiful to look at, which visually show where the crops are grown, what types of crops are grown and the crop size.  According to the AAFC, it’s a way for them to combat both short-term and long-term threats to stable and reliable access to food for all and to ensure a profitable agricultural sector.  It’s all heady stuff, but it just so happens that I’ve seen it up close and personal.  I have actually contacted one of the scientists through twitter, who does this work and I invited him to my farm last summer.

So on a warm August day last year I was visited by Leander Campbell, a remote sensing specialist from a AAFC who was busily crop mapping across Ontario.  An associate accompanied him from AAFC.  These individuals would drive on a specific preplanned route through Ontario inputting which crops were in which fields and geo-tagging that information within a handheld computer.  This information would later be correlated with the satellite and radar data producing those beautiful maps.  Being the agricultural economist type, it takes me longer to learn these things so I’d invited these two individuals to lunch.  It was there where I learned more about the intricacies of this technology.

I have showed these crop maps in Prince Edward Island, Québec and parts of Ontario on my speaking tours.  At each location, farmers love them and wonder how I ever generated something like that.  Yes, they are visually beautiful crop maps but behind them is some powerful technology that gives us great information.  Often, when we put our marketing analyst hat on we debate USDA crop size.  Usually, we second-guess them and it is great fun.  However, with this technology we are getting much more accurate.  The problem is in Ontario, and any other province, I think we’ve always “guessed” the crop size.  There is really no good accurate way to do it and if you are trying to predict Ontario basis levels for something like corn in the fall of 2016 or the spring of 2017 that information is critical.  Using remote sensing will make all of that so much more transparent and better decisions can be made by farmers as well as end-users of Ontario crops.  The mystery of how big that crop is should be taken away.

So it is 2016.  When I started farming there was no auto steer, there was no remote sensing, no accurate pictures of crops from space.  However, now there is and even somebody like me can load it on my iPad in real time and look at it.  If you want to learn more and get an appreciation for this amazing tangible technology follow AAFC Remote Sensing Specialist Leander Campbell on Twitter and click on his profile.(@LeanderCampbell)

Next week we will get the final numbers from our friends at the USDA.  The January report can sometimes bring limit moves in grains as USDA has been known to change the numbers.  Vitriol may spew post report as everybody has an opinion.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just use remote sensing to accurately figure it all out in the future.  I think that day will come.