University introduces local farmers to drones, satellite mapping

ETTRICK — Last week Virginia State University held a mathematics and technology seminar at Randolph Farm to benefit local farmers. Drones and satellite mapping may not be the first things that come to mind when thinking about farming techniques but it's exactly what southeastern Virginia’s farmers came to learn.

“Critical thinking is an important part of decision making for farmers,” said Dr. Christopher Catanzaro, associate professor of Plant Science and Horticulture at VSU. “What are you going to grow; how much are you going to grow; when are you going to plant it; are you going to plant all of it at one time or are you going to stagger all of your plantings? Who are you going to sell to; are you going to sell to yourself or sell to a company?”

The workshop aimed at teaching small local farmers to use mathematics and computer aided farming programs to help answer those questions to reach the most productive outcomes.

The school, now known as Virginia State, was founded as a land-grant institution as part of the Morrill Acts of 1890. Virginia Tech is the only other such school in the state with this agricultural and mechanical focus with outreach programs to farmers.

Virginia State invites farmers to periodic workshops to share its nearly 90 years of agricultural research and expertise with locals at Randolph Farm. The farm has 130 acres of irrigated cropland and 18,500 square feet of greenhouses that house agricultural projects like the study and upkeep of 46 varieties of blueberry.

The thought for this technology and Math oriented program originally started from Dr. Krishan Agrawal, a professor with the VSU Department of Mathematics and Economics. His idea spawned an interdisciplinary effort that grew to include Dr. Catanzaro from Agriculture and Leonel Castillo, an outreach agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, which works to spread Virginia’s land-grand knowledge to farmers in their areas.

“Being an agent is interesting because you see three farmers doing the same thing with different techniques and getting the same results, but one of them is making more money than the others,” Castillo said. “There are so many variables that you have to look at. You have to be logical and practice. Then if you have some degree of technology base to make decisions, it can make a big difference; can barrow less and make the same.”

Castillo said the one of his group’s overall goals is teaching farmers techniques to farm longer into the winter. Colder climates are often importing fruits and vegetables from California, Mexico or Florida during the winter even though the area is perfectly capable of farming into the winter with greenhouse technology.

Students at the workshop were taught to use Geographic Information System software as a planning station with a bird’s eye view of their properties to better plan crop planting.

“We’re having the math professors give them basic instruction and basic calculation that they can use day to day on their farms,” Castillo said. “It fine-tunes their tools that they can use to calculate the width of a row of crops or how much water to use.”

The GPS view of a farmer’s land can help them analyze the space they have to farm. If a farmer is planting rows that are too wide, it cuts down on the potential yield. If the rows are too narrow, the crops are strangled for nutrients. GIS gives farmers the ability to input data and variables to better navigate this delicate balancing act and get the most crop from their seed.

Drone technology augments GIS with real-time observation and data. If a corner of the farm starts showing signs of disease, that can quickly spread and ruin a huge portion of the field. Castillo explains that a certain disease will double in size within 48 hours. Prior to using drones, farmers would physically walk the field – a laborious process with a poor view. A drone can much more easily spot thin areas of crop from the air.

Breyon Pierce was a student at the seminar. He himself farms over 500 acres of land with his father that has been passed down from generation to generation. When his father took over in the 1980s, the farm was just 200 acres.

“Each generation added its own knowledge up until now,” Pierce said. “Now I feel that the way I come in is the technology key. Even with the good farm practices, without technology we won’t be competitive with the large farmers. Even though we may not farm as much acreage as these larger farmers who have over 2,000 acres, we can still get the maximum yield.”

Along with his farm, Pierce also teaches agriculture at Surry County High School. He plans to bring back what he’s learned to teach his students and further spread the knowledge taught by VSU’s workshop.

“Seeing the benefit of it firsthand, I can teach it to my students as far as job opportunities in the industry,” Pierce said. “It’s a billion-dollar industry and I can tell my students ‘get you a piece of that pie.’”