Keeping a high eye on farm sustainability

It’s expensive and tedious to verify production practices in sustainable agriculture programs, so an Australian-based company is developing tools based on satellite imagery and farm production data that can automatically check if protocols have been followed.

FluroSat’s core business uses remote sensing, agricultural science, machine learning and artificial intelligence on any relevant data set to provide insights for growers, so demonstrating production practices in sustainable programs have been followed isn’t a big leap for the company.

Anastasia Volkova, founder and chief executive officer of FluroSat, said the system uses satellite imagery including infrared light wavelength bands to produce vegetation indices to understand what’s happening on fields.

Each crop has a specific reflective light signature, as do tilled fields compared to fields where stubble is left standing.

By the end of this growing year FluroSat will be able to look back over the last three growing years to verify production practices in any given field.

This spring, a fund led by Cargill is beginning to pay American farmers for capturing carbon in their field soils and reducing fertilizer runoff.

The Soil and Water Outcomes Fund, which was formed by a partnership between the Iowa Soybean Association and third-party verification company Quantified Ventures, will sell environmental credits created by farmers, obtained by using zero-till and cover crops, to heavy polluters, such as companies and cites.

FluroSat is positioning itself to work with the third-party verification companies by offering a cheaper way to verify growers have followed production criteria of sustainable agriculture programs.

Volkova said the company is tracking four sustainability practices and may pay farmers for.

“These four are surfacing more than any other ones. The Nature Conservancy Organization in the U.S. is also highlighting these to target first,” Volkova said.

“It’s the tillage, then it’s cover crop use, then it’s rotation, and it’s the input use efficiency.”

FluroSat algorithms can detect the type of tillage, including partial tillage and zero-till, and can also verify crop rotations by looking back to see what has been grown on the field for the past few years.

She said the presence and performance of a cover crop is sometimes put into two categories, because a strong cover crop affects the environment differently than a cover crop that had poor emergence.

“These are the practices you can monitor with remote sensing. Whereas, if we look at a more important practice such as nutrient use efficiency, currently at FluroSat we offer a solution to growers and their advisers. It’s a decision support tool for optimizing nitrogen recommendation,” Volkova said.

“It’s not yet at the level where you can guarantee that you have the optimal level of nitrogen prescription for that specific farm. But we are certainly striving towards that goal.”

FluroSat uses a farm’s production information including input application information and soil tests to provide variable rate recommendations for fertilizer, and it’s also working toward correlating these recommendations with the state or national nitrogen-use practices and recommendations.

“We want to deliver the tool that allows for recommending the amount to be as close to optimal as you can get given the data you provide, as well as the data that the model has access to. We can correlate that with the government practices on nitrogen optimal use efficiency,” Volkova said.

She said there will be increasing opportunities for farmers to access additional income. That may come through leveraging a market premium on products or through sustainability incentives such as conservation credits. In the future, the list of sustainability-related incentives may expand to include favourable land-lease terms and insurance packages.

There are already farmers who use their sustainable production practices to tap into specialty markets, but the larger trend in the industry is for food processors and food aggregators to manage the sustainability programs.

Volkova said FluroSat is working to automate the verification process to the specification and the guidelines of specific companies or local regulations.

About the author

explore

Stories from our other publications