Studying Crops Using Satellite Imagery

May 28, 2013

in At Work With Statisticians

By Rick Mueller

While most NASS statisticians studied mathematics, economics or agriculture in school, my career path started in a completely different place. I came to NASS in the 1990s as an IT specialist to help the agency evolve its use of geospatial technology and contribute to the remote sensing acreage estimation program. While most of the agency staff learned about agriculture by visiting fields, my knowledge of this intricate subject came from studying and analyzing satellite imagery.

When I began working with the remote sensing program, budget constraints limited satellite coverage and analysis to just one county in one state—Craighead County, Arkansas. NASS created this program to derive acreage estimates from satellite imagery, and to provide timely updates of state and county area estimates.

Fast forward almost 20 years and the Cropland Data Layer (CDL) program has evolved to become a national land cover product and is disseminated via a geospatial interactive data portal called CropScape. The CDL provides not only a content-rich map depicting the agricultural landscape, but also a timely, accurate and useful statistics operationally for 19 crops in the major growing states throughout the growing season to the Agricultural Statistics Board. These data are now an integral element of NASS’ crop estimates program.

In addition to seeing these amazing projects operationalized, the most rewarding aspect of my job is developing collaborative partnerships. I have had the pleasure to not only work on collaborative partnerships with the other agencies within USDA, but also with other federal departments, including the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Air and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, and Bureau of Reclamation.

These partnerships contribute shared resources, technologies, satellites or methods delivering improvements and expanding our remote-sensing and geospatial programs while moving these programs from research to operational status. Most recently a partnership with George Mason University in Virginia helped us launch a new interactive vegetation condition portal named VegScape, which shows on a daily, weekly or biweekly basis vegetative crop condition. VegScape is our latest geospatial venture providing timely updates of vegetative or crop condition throughout the growing season, so check VegScape as the growing season progresses to see how well the corn is growing!

As I look back at my nearly-20-year career with NASS, the most important thing I have learned is that you don’t have to be a statistician to appreciate statistics. And as we celebrate the 2013 International Year of Statistics, it is important to remember that you don’t have to be a statistician to get involved in this important field. Whether by directly working with numbers or tools, or simply by responding to a survey, all of us can help contribute to accurate statistics around the world.

Mueller is section head of the National Agriculture Statistics Service’s Spatial Analysis Research unit in Washington, D.C., USA.