Given the chance, would you deploy a drone to see whether a neighbor’s farming practices are protecting the soil or destroying the soil?
If a neighbor — or the government — did the same to your farm, how would you feel?
This idea is gaining some traction in the United Kingdom (UK). BBC says a coalition of environmentalists are suggesting the Environment Agency use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones to identify and crack down on poor farming practices.
The group says poor farming is the chief cause of the UK’s decline in the health of rivers and a major contributor to flooding. They blame corn planted on steep slopes with wide spacings, and soil compaction from livestock as major issues. The Environment Agency only has the resources to check about 0.5% of farmland each year for erosion, they add.
In one trial of this drone method, the Environment Agency shifted its local budget toward the use of drones and, guided by a contour map, field agents identified areas of fields most susceptible to losing soil in heavy rains. The agency offset the cost of drones by handing their farm advisory role locally to a foundation.
A spokesperson for the foundation says pilot project not only improved the soil but also benefited fish, especially spawning salmon.
The environmental groups are calling for a strategic approach to land use management in the UK to would allow different farming practices in different areas. The groups say farmers who allow soil to run off fields should first be given advice but be prosecuted and stripped of grants if they continue to allow unacceptable levels of erosion to occur.
Farmers who help prevent flooding and increase the carbon content of their soils should be rewarded through the grant system, they say.
Woodmanton potato farmer Sam Bright told BBC he worked with a foundation in the pilot area to improve soil conservation through planting buffer strips on field edges, increasing pastureland and using minimum tillage.
Instead of selling off his wheat straw to livestock farmers he chops it and leaves it on the soil surface. “The worms are pulling the straw residue right down into the soil for us,” he told BBC. “So we've got good organic levels right through the soil profile. It's improving our drainage, our soil structure and our soil health.”
While there are many jittery feelings about the role of drones in the U.S., the machines have a lot of potential in agriculture to help growers improve scouting and input management, monitor livestock and water sources, irrigation equipment and other tasks.
For field agents and regulators, maybe this is already being done but I’m not aware of it. Drone footage may provide overwhelming evidence of the damage being caused by tillage and other poor farming practices in areas that are hard to access otherwise. But is the right approach to penalize farmers or provide them educational resources and incentives?
Whether it’s drones, financial statements or big data, farmers take their privacy very seriously. Among other things, memories of the EPA’s overreaching “Waters of the U.S.” rule are still fresh. Some growers have threatened to shoot down unfamiliar drones if they’re flying over their farms, but the FAA says that’s illegal.
I think the “right or wrong” on this depends on your perspective. But I would hope that someday a majority of growers in the U.S. will care enough about their soil resource to use drones to scout their own fields and address problem areas proactively, rather than leaving a window open for the government to get involved.