Mapping a Path to a Potential Ag Career

Crop data, whether it’s weather, crop condition, crop model information, or any number of agricultural statistics, these data resources are useful and, in many cases, can stand alone. That’s according to Lisa Colson, geographer with USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, yet…

That information is only as valuable as the degree to which we understand where the crops are grown when they are planted and when they are harvested.

Translation: eyes on the ground, field enumerators, that assessors that can see crop conditions firsthand and coordinate that information with satellite imagery.

Sometimes we know, broadly speaking, and it’s grown in a specific region of a country. That country might be Tanzania, but during a severe drought the farmer decided to switch and grow with different crops that year to try to minimize using an intensive crop like cotton in their production.

FAS staff contribute to field observation and data used in USDA information sets, such as the world agricultural supply and demand estimates, although Colson acknowledges in some cases, there’s time limitations for staff.

Recently, we were approached by the International Agency for Development asking us if there is some sort of agricultural project we could do with this group called Youth Mappers. And we immediately thought of this challenge we have that we need that ground truth data, we need that direct observation of where a crop is being grown during different time periods of the season.

Colson mentioned the African nation of Tanzania earlier as it was the location of a pilot program involving 14 Youth Mappers, university students in Tasmania that are part of a global network of chapters participating in mapping activities in response to local and global development needs. Yet as Lisa Colson explains,

Usually Youth Mappers are mapping features from the built environment or looking at roads, homes, stores, they want to know what those buildings are and where they are. So having them identify agricultural fields is a bit different for them. But we saw this as an excellent opportunity for empowering these tech savvy young leaders in Africa to expand their understanding of geospatial work.

These students gather various data on grain oil, seed and cotton crops in over 300 fields in the Arusha area of the country with such information including photographs, geo referencing, and identification of target crops as the Foreign Agricultural Services’ Luke Nigh explains.

The pilot project is a great example of how FAS can work with local partners as well as with US universities to be able to put together this program and to use an existing technology, existing infrastructure, and existing network, and to be able to tweak it for agricultural purposes.

After the additional pilot in April, participating youth mappers spent time later in the spring training Tanzanian youth on geomapping and other logistics associated with obtaining on-ground crop and field data. Nigh says the success of the pilot in Tanzania could lead to a scale-up of the youth mappers in agriculture project.

Within Tanzania or within the region of East Africa or the East Africa community or even more broadly across the continent or into other places around the world.

Especially as youth mappers serves as an opening as a career path into agriculture.

One of the challenges worldwide is that youth are not going into agriculture. It’s a problem in this country. It’s a problem around the world. And so engaging youth with technology and with new ways of doing things and showing that agriculture is not just with a hole in the field, but rather is a broader opportunity and then something that we think is a positive draw.