A tech pioneer talks: Satellite imagery's role in ag
FARGO — Lanny Faleide is a farmer turned technological pioneer whose work has been praised by NASA. For 24 years, his self-described "bleeding-edge" company has used space-age technology, particularly satellite imagery, to help agricultural producers better understand their fields and farm them more efficiently.
But Faleide said greater interest in precision agriculture, including the use of satellite and drone imagery, doesn't mean he and his company, Satshot, have finally reached the promised land.
"How about instead finding the (mythical) gold at the rainbow's end?" he said with a rueful smile.
The smile faded and he added, "If there's a disappointment, it's that farmers haven't been quicker to embrace the technology. They have access to it, but they're not always using it."
Faleide talked with Agweek in his Fargo office. His son, Nathan, operates out of Langdon, N.D. Together they operate the company, along with a small group of long-term employees and contract workers.
The Satshot brand offers online and mobile analysis of satellite imagery for the agriculture industry.
"We access and distribute imagery from multiple satellites sources from the earth observation industry, utilize a state-of-the-art, extensive cloud distribution system and provide software tools for the user, who may then apply analytics to their fields," Faleide said.
Satshot has clients throughout the United States and Canada, as well as around the world.
"We've supplied services in a number of countries including Brazil and Australia, but the U.S. and Canada are our main areas," Faleide said.
Precision ag primer
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Every field has variations in soil types, elevation and drainage patterns, among other things. As a result, some parts of the field have better yield potential than others. Treating the entire field exactly the same way shortchanges parts with above-average yield potential and wastes resources on parts with below-average potential.
Precision agriculture, including satellite imagery, helps farmers apply the right amount of inputs — seed, fertilizer and pesticide — to every square foot of the field.
Faleide farmed in the Maddock, N.D., area near Devils Lake, N.D., for about 20 years. In 1989, he began working with satellite imagery remote sensing.
In 1993, he quit farming full time and went back to North Dakota State University, where he took a class on geographic information systems, or GIS. That led him to start Agri ImaGIS in 1994.
The company, now Satshot, has seen many changes during its 24-year history. Some are mentioned in the 2016 issue of NASA Spinoff, an annual publication that profiles companies using NASA technology to improve life on Earth.
The article praised Faleide for his ability to recognize and adopt technology, often when it was still in its infancy. For instance, his company was the first commercial user of MapServer, a now widely-used platform for publishing spatial data and interactive mapping applications to the web.
The article also credited him for being "ahead of his time" in thinking about what's now known as cloud computing, or the practice of using a network of remote servers on the internet to store, manage and process data, rather than a personal computer.
Faleide's many professional accomplishments and recognitions include the following timeline:
• 1999 — Helped to establish North Dakota's first rural-based Technology Center in Maddock.
• 2000 — Recognized by NASA's Spinoff for Web-based imagery mapping system.
• 2004 — Developed first cloud-based image analytics system for agriculture.
• 2014 — Involved in building first satellite imagery receiving stations in North Dakota.
• 2016 — Testified at U.S. House Ag Committee hearing on satellite imagery technologies.
• 2016 and 2017 — Spoke at major conferences on space and agriculture.
One sign of how much technology has changed in the past 24 years: When Faleide started his company, the internet lacked the capacity to transmit a large amount of data: it needed to be sent on floppy disks or other storage. Today, ag producers can use smartphones to send and receive large amounts of data from their tractors.
Faleide, asked if he considers his company to be cutting-edge, smiled and said, "More like bleeding-edge." The latter generally refers to the most advanced stage of technology, usually economically risky.
"Just because we know what we're doing and have the technology doesn't mean we win. We have to keep adapting," he said, pointing "to a lot of competition and big money (against us).
And with the ag economy kind of dipping, we have to work at it more marketing wise."
In retrospect, would he have have operated the company less on the bleeding-edge?
He paused for several seconds and said, "As an entrepreneur, you can't really control it (the desire to push). Once you've tasted the candy, you're not going to stop eating it, unless the doctor tells you to," he said.
His strength as an entrepreneur is putting "teams together. I've guided a team to put this together," Faleide said.
As a veteran entrepreneur, he offered this advice for would-be entrepreneurs: "If you're going to start a company, be sure you're aware of the consequences," — i.e., the challenges it would create for your financial security and family life.
In talking about his industry and its future, Faleide mentions both Elon Musk, the international entrepreneur and a leader in private space exploration, and the Borg from the Star Trek universe. Neither comes up often in ag-related conversations.
"As an entrepreneur, I don't believe in failure. I believe in adapting. Like the Borg said, 'adapt or die,'" he said, adding that the Borg ultimately were bested by "human intelligence."
Faleide's belief in technology comes with a commitment to soil health and sustainability.
"Soils are living, breathing organisms. A lot of people don't understand that. People are throwing on these 'medicines' to solve this and this and that, but they aren't thinking about how the soil will be affected," he said.
He credited at least part of his commitment to soil health to his wife, Lisa. He also thanked her for her support through the years.
Use still uncommon
It's difficult to find hard numbers of how many farmers are utilizing satellite imagery.
A 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, drawing on data from 1996 to 2013, found mixed results on farmers' adoption of precision agriculture tools. Some tools, particularly yield monitors, are widely used by farmers, while other tools, including satellite imagery, are less popular.
A 2015 survey by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that satellite/aerial imagery is one of the least-adopted precision ag tools.
The general consensus in ag circles is that both satellite imagery and drone imagery have roles to play. Faleide's take: Satellite imagery is better, in part because satellites can cover a wider area.
"It's about scalability and logistics and how to process the data," he said.
Why should farmers with modestly sized farming operations consider using satellite imagery?
"There's this assumption (among farmers) that everybody's field is great — until you look at it, especially from above," he said.
The view from above, provided for a very small per-acre fee, helps farmers cut costs or improve yields, or both, and increases their profits, he said.
Faleide said it's frustrating to see farmers with the capacity to utilize satellite imagery — who have smartphones and the appropriate equipment on their tractors — but who aren't doing so.
When times are good economically, farmers say they don't need to. When times are tough financially, ag producers say they can't afford to, Faleide said.
"I just don't understand it, to tell you the truth. I'm befuddled by it," he said.
Looking ahead, satellite imagery's usefulness to agriculture will grow, in part by improving satellites and taking higher-resolution images, he said.
'I dreamed about this stuff'
Faleide said he would have been happy to remain a farmer for the rest of his life. But this self-professed "atypical nerd of my generation" is mostly content with life as a tech pioneer.
"I dreamed about this stuff when I was farming and when I was a young kid, too," he said. "I saw men walk on the moon and and dreamed about the technology. I helped to bring my dream of technology into farming; I take this technology that's available and try to make actionable uses for it in agriculture."
"It's been a fun trip. My regret is that farmers aren't more willing to adopt the technology," he said.
That regret aside, "The whole idea is to believe in your dreams and passions. Maybe it's because of my stubborn Norwegian tenacity, but I've been able to do that," he said.