Satellites Helping Understand and Predict What Happens in the Field

Satellites are helping depict a clearer picture (literally) of what Canadian farmers grow each year.

Accurately predicting and measuring production of each crop grown in Canada has been an ongoing quest for the grain industry and government agencies since farming began in North America. Or at least since the start of the 20th century when E.Cora Hind, the ag editor for the Manitoba Free Press, became world-renowned as “the oracle of wheat” for accurately projecting the size of the Western Canadian wheat crop.

E. Cora Hind (Manitoba Ag Hall of Fame)

E. Cora Hind (Manitoba Ag Hall of Fame)

Field tours, which Hind based her predictions on, and phone surveys have provided samples for analysts to base wider predictions on over the years, but in the last decade, advancements in remote sensing and data processing have added more detail than ever before to how well we understand crop size and type.

For example, since 2011, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has built crop inventory maps based on satellite observations that the department says are at least 85 percent accurate at a resolution of 30 metres.

“It’s been in the last five years that things have really started to take off. You’re starting to get a confluence of more, cheaper satellites going up, plus computer power is increasing and also getting cheaper. It’s making it a lot easier for people to access satellite imagery and to actually use it for something practical,” says Leander Campbell, a remote sensing scientist with AAFC who’s involved in producing the crop inventory maps, in the interview below.

The optical and radar satellite observations are verified using provincial crop insurance data and old-fashioned data collection by touring fields on the road in provinces like Ontario, where crop insurance information isn’t available.

While it’s one thing to know how many acres of each crop are growing in a given summer, it’s also valuable to understand changes over time.

“The real power comes when you start looking at it temporally. You see how fields are rotating, how ag land is expanding through farmers maybe cutting down a woodlot or contracting from urban expansion, you get into the where’s and the how’s across Canada,” he says.

AAFC also contributed to Statistics Canada’s first official satellite-derived crop yield report last September. StatsCan used a model based on satellite observations and historical figures, but no phone survey of farmers to build its crop size projections. In addition to yield estimates, AAFC’s observational data is being used to build models to help industry with issues such as predicting insect pest movement and clubroot disease risk.

“Not many countries around the world are doing this kind of thing,” says Campbell. “So we’re getting the word out, showing people what we do, how accurate it is and what can be done with it. It’s been fascinating learning about all the different projects where people have been taking our data and what they’re converting it into.”

Check out the crop inventory maps collected by AAFC’s earth observation team here, as well as other agricultural geospatial products here. Campbell also posts colourful, informative maps and photos (such as the one above) on Twitter at @leandercampbell.

Leander Campbell stopped in to chat about satellite-based mapping, the role of UAVs and more during CropConnect ’16 in Winnipeg last month:

Find more coverage of CropConnect ’16 in Winnipeg here!

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