Student earns remote sensing fellowship for organic farming research
BOZEMAN, Mont. — A Montana State University doctoral student studying organic farming and developing management practices for organic farmers in Montana was recognized recently by the state branch of a national remote sensing body.
Sasha Loewen, who is in his third year of doctoral studies in the department of land resources and environmental sciences in MSU’s College of Agriculture, was one of two MSU students to receive MontanaView’s annual fellowship. Erik Killian, of the department of plant sciences and plant pathology, was also recognized with a fellowship last month.
Loewen, who grew up on his family’s farm in Manitoba, Canada, conducts research with adviser Bruce Maxwell that focuses on the impact of varied seeding rates on the yield and protein content of cereal crops, such as wheat, in organic systems. Since organic farmers do not have the option of applying standard, nitrogen-based fertilizers, they must use other means to maximize return on their fields and manage weeds.
“An organic farmer doesn’t have any silver bullets in the form of chemical herbicides for weeds or nitrogen fertilizer for yield,” said Loewen. “Using data-driven mapping techniques, the objective of this research is to determine the influence of seeding rate on yield and grain protein content.”
Loewen and Maxwell partner with four organic farms in north-central Montana, collecting data from the farmers’ own seeding equipment, which measures the rate at which seed is applied and maps its variation on the field. That data is combined with satellite imagery of those same fields to identify the relationship between seeding rates of cover crops and cash crops and the later yield of the final product. Computer modeling programs are then used to create site-specific estimates of how continued honing of seeding rates can maximize agricultural benefit to organic farmers.
The team meets frequently with their partner producers and holds annual meetings to share the data and conclusions they’ve collected over the past year. They create maps showing the location and prevalence of weeds over time, and Loewen is also beginning to explore the addition of drones to the project, which offer higher-resolution imagery and allow greater specificity in identifying trends.
Loewen and Maxwell hope to create a software application using their research that producers can use to explore the computer-generated models. Their statistical findings and their recorded impact on yield and protein content will then be in the farmers’ hands, allowing the farmers to tailor and implement management practices to their own fields.
“The whole project is geared toward coming up with management suggestions for the farmer to be able to use in real life,” said Loewen. “Conventional systems have increased yields with the adoption of precision agriculture, and using these techniques to track the effect of seeding rate of both cover and cash crops can help organic systems to emulate those same practices within their own unique constraints.”
MontanaView, hosted by MSU’s Spatial Sciences Center and led by SSC director Scott Powell in the department of land resources and environmental sciences, is the state branch of the national nonprofit AmericaView.