From space, Noreen Thomas’ farm in northwest Minnesota looks like a patchwork quilt. Fields change color with the season and the crop. Thomas enjoys this view from hundreds of miles above Earth’s surface—not just for the beauty, but the utility. She relies on satellite imagery to maximize her harvest and minimize damage to her fields. It’s become another tool, like tractors or sprinklers.
The top image (September, 2009) shows Thomas’s farm along the banks of the Buffalo River. Growing crops are green; already-harvested fields are brown. The lower image, made with infrared light, shows the same scene in false color, and provides a wealth of information about crop conditions.
It might be confusing to you, but Thomas sees infested crops (yellows), crop health (shades of red), flooding (black), and spots where unwanted pesticides land on her chemical-free crops (brown). The images help her root out weeds, and confirm that her crops are growing at least 10 feet from the borders of a neighboring farm—required to maintain organic certification. They show, too, where crops are waterlogged or impacted by hail storms.
“We’d have to walk our entire 1,200 hundred-plus acres on a regular basis to see the same things we can see by just downloading satellite images ... There’s no more ideal way I know to show how healthy our crops are.”