Nut growers look to space for support, guidance

NASA satellite images could soon give information to nut growers about their orchard's health.

Space is preparing to go a little nuts. NASA satellite images could soon give information to nut growers about their orchard's health, allowing them to stay ahead of plant-stress issues, pests and diseases that could affect crop yield and quality. Researchers from New Mexico State University, Texas A&M and the University of California-Davis recently received a three-year grant for nearly $870,000 from the US Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crops Research Initiative to study nut trees and how data collected in orchards correlates to the satellite images, said Rolston St. Hilaire, a plant and environmental sciences professor at NMSU. "[The satellites] will tell us information not visible to the naked eye, like leaf temperature, for example," he said. The images will capture different light wavelengths and resolutions created by the trees' energy use at a particular wavelength, St. Hilaire said. The wavelengths can then inform researchers about a plant's health, which they hope will give pecan and other nut growers a way to recognize plant stress early. "If a plant is wilting, it's too late," he said. "Instead, you can get an early signal so you can do an intervention early in the field." The technology "will likely save [the farmers] money," said Richard Heerema, an extension pecan specialist with NMSU. "If a grower can go on the Internet and see the entire orchard, they can make more precise and accurate decisions on when to irrigate. This works to minimize stress and have a minimal amount of water wasted," he said. "We already use irrigation water efficiently, but we're looking to push that even further and be able to tailor it to individual orchards." New Mexico is one of the top three states in pecan production, and its 40,000-acre (160,000-dunam) crop is worth about $100 million, Heerema said. Researchers at Texas A&M also will focus on pecans, while UC-Davis will collect information on walnuts and almonds. NMSU's research team also will collect data for water and nitrogen, which is a fertilizer for pecan crops, to create models in pecan orchards, St. Hilaire said. "We can already get the satellite images," he said. "It's just a matter of finding out what we are seeing so we can find the right model. We have to know what the picture is telling us." The team has set up towers in different orchards to record information such as carbon dioxide levels, air temperature, and the rate at which trees convert sunlight to energy. Other data is collected with instruments in the soil and from tools attached to individual leaves, St. Hilaire said. John Clayshulte, a pecan farmer from Mesilla, New Mexico, said having trees use water and fertilizer at the right time can save farmers money. He said he currently uses low-tech methods such as a pocket guide and a shovel with more advanced sensors and probes to keep an eye on water and fertilizer levels in his orchard. "It makes a difference," Clayshulte said. "That's bottom-line dollars to us, especially when your fertilizer bill is $100,000 or more. For us farmers, whatever's left over after paying the bills is what we have."