In 2006, Esri UC featured a six-pack of 4-H youth on stage. The “emcee” of the team was 16-year-old (that day!) Emmaline Long, from Bergen NY. What has happened with her since her time with “plows, sows, and cows”? I caught up with her for an hour-long interview on a quiet Sunday morning this fall. I wanted to see what path her life had taken, and what role if any GIS was playing in her life.
After two more years of high school, Long went to Cornell University, on a scholarship that came in part because of a project she had done mapping endangered orchids in a swamp, which had elevated her to a finalist in the Intel Talent Search. Her undergrad work didn't involve a lot of GIS, but she was interested in precision ag, and she turned that into her Master's thesis.
"I studied agronomy and geospatial sciences. My thesis was evaluating precision agriculture technology on self-propelled forage harvesters, checking to see if they are accurate in the attributes gathered, particularly moisture, measured by near-infrared reflectance. We aggregated data into truckloads (10-20 tons each), and found that they are accurate within the parameters of what the company says, if the farm calibrates. But after my Master's degree I didn't know what I wanted to do, because I like it all -- vegetables, field crops and grains, dairy farms. I found a farm near my home which grows everything and needed someone with my background. CY Farms LLC is a third generation family farm with 6000 acres of vegetables, grains, and forages, across 300 fields (of 4-170 acres). I can scout diseases of onions in the morning and be at the dairy looking at forage quality in the afternoon. I told them I'd give them one full year to try, and am now just finishing my sixth growing season."
Most of the farm work involves data collection.
"We have auto-steer machines, which create an ‘A-B’ line in tilling. Then we use that exact line to guide across the field for fertilizing, which lets us do variable rate fertilizing, according to prescriptions written in our spatial software, based on grid soil sampling data or soil types. Then comes planting, in our 24-row planter with sectional auto-shutoff, and we collect data every second, including how many seeds, the variety, the downforce, singulation."
All this data is sent to a cloud-based database for storage and analysis. Long and colleagues gather data on about two thirds of the acres every year, and then get the yield maps to overlay and look for patterns and relationships.
"Ag in general is good at collecting the data, but not quite as good at making decisions on the basis of that data. Companies make satellite data available, even a couple of times per week, but I have 300 fields spread across the landscape, in all different shapes and sizes, and a lot of things to do. Still, we can go back afterwards to study the data and see if we might have spotted something earlier that shows up later in the harvest, which can then influence the scouting I do in the fields during the next year."
So, when you were in school, and got started with 4-H, and they introduced you to GIS, did you gravitate to it?
"Ohmigosh yes! I'm a data mapping, visual spatial person. I can't remember numbers, but can picture the whole field and tell you about the spatial aspects; that's just the way my brain works. Give me an atlas to look at. And I still go geocaching. I can't be sure, but I think if I hadn't been in 4-H and hadn't been introduced, I would hope I would have found it some other way. I was just immediately drawn to it."
And are you still learning?
"We all have to. Every year, the job and responsibilities have evolved, with changes in crops, our technology, and the people we have access to. I love to learn; my employers value learning, and the industry offers a lot of opportunities for it, and people see it as essential. It's especially prominent in the winter. Last week, I went to two different variety trials; all winter long, starting in December, I'm not in the office 5 days because of meetings and conferences and workshops."
In 2006, six young people captivated the audience with their interest in geospatial tools, showing they recognized a wide-open door. In the intervening years, the career opportunities presented by GIS have multiplied, fed by each new technological advance, and by understanding that it helps people solve problems and design solutions. Any K12 school or formal youth-serving club can request ArcGIS software for instruction for free.