From Space to the Field

Images captured from satellites orbiting 440 miles above the Earth tell a powerful, richly detailed story about crop yields—revealing the lushness or deficits of fields with surprising precision.

With the help of about 100 farmers so far as part of a citizen science project, researcher Phil Townsend and his team hope to coax even more valuable information from the satellite photos and change how farmers’ yields are reported and analyzed.

“The reporting of crop yields is now done at the county level with information confidentially reported by farmers to the USDA,” says Townsend, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology. “Counties can be very large. We now have the ability to analyze yields at the field level with these images, giving us much more accurate and granular data.”

By tracking the greenness of fields from the satellites and analyzing climate data, researchers hope to identify impacts of insect pests, crop diseases and weather events like frost, tornados or hail.

First, however, they needed to test their yield estimates against farmers’ actual yields. So Townsend’s team developed a website—yieldsurvey. wisc.edu—that allows researchers to confidentially crowdsource crop yield information. Townsend is encouraging even more submissions.

Farmers can enter their field’s location by dropping pins on a Google map, along with the type of crop and the actual crop yield for as many seasons as possible. The information is then analyzed and compared to estimates developed in Townsend’s lab.

“Our yield estimates are within about 15 percent of what the farmers report,” Townsend says. “Our target is to get that down to 10 percent. If you’re a farmer, the closer you can get to that could be the difference between making money and breaking even.”

Citizen science is a two-way street—it helps researchers tweak their estimates based on real data, and those more accurate numbers can help farmers be more productive and better managers.

Ultimately, Townsend says, the satellite technology and climate data, refined by knowing the actual yields from participating farmers, have the potential to predict crop yields well before harvest time.

Farmers see promise in the new approach, says Kevin Erb, a UW–Extension agronomist based in Green Bay.

“Farmers benefit from using remote sensing technology,” Erb says. “If we know early in the season that we have the potential for above-average yields, that can affect the types of pesticides and fertilizers that you use during the season.”

Being able to make decisions during the season based on this sort of predictive data could increase profits $50 or more per acre, Erb says.

Townsend’s team is cooperating with the USDA and hopes to snag funding to broaden the project. The effort is an example of the Wisconsin Idea at work, Townsend says.

“We have to connect with our constituents, and that’s where crowdsourcing and citizen science comes into play,” he says. “Farmers are participating in the science, and they see the benefits. It’s building trust.”

IMAGE: This map looking at soybean crops in the Upper Midwest shows how yields are predicted to vary even within the same county. Researchers are trying to verify their estimates by working with farmers to determine their actual yields.
Courtesy of Aditya Singh/UW–Madison CALS

The Greenhouse as a Public Classroom

Just as some seeds yield tomatoes, carrots and lettuce, others grow community and partnership.

In a greenhouse in the northern Wisconsin town of Park Falls, all of those seeds are taking root with the help of CALS horticulture graduate student Michael Geiger, horticulture professor Sara Patterson and a team of dedicated local leaders.

“The greenhouse has opened doors to making healthier food choices, to education about gardening in local schools—and it’s given the university a presence in Park Falls,” says Geiger, who grew up in Arbor Vitae, some 50 miles away.

Geiger’s involvement with the Flambeau River Community Growing Center started four years ago when a friend in the area approached him for advice. Her group was seeking funding for a greenhouse project, and Geiger teamed with Patterson to identify possible revenue sources. They developed a proposal for the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment at UW–Madison.

By fall 2013, construction had begun on a 25-by- 50-foot vail-style greenhouse, built by community volunteers on a vacant lot donated by Flambeau River Papers just north of the mill. Plans call for the facility to eventually be heated with waste steam from the mill.

The Flambeau River Community Growing Center has gained popularity with community members and school groups interested in learning about plants and gardening. “It’s a greenhouse, but it’s also a classroom,” says Geiger.

Learners include children from the Chequamegon School District, who start seeds in the greenhouse and nurture seedlings until they can be transplanted to their own school gardens. Area 4–H groups grow plants and tend them in raised beds just outside the greenhouse. Master Gardener classes are held at the facility, and community workshops have included such topics as square-foot and container gardening as well as hydroponics. Kids have been delighted with sessions on soil testing and painting their own flowerpots.

“It’s clearly a benefit to build a connection between UW–Madison and the community, for the community itself—people from ages 3 to 90—and for the local schools,” Patterson says.

Community leaders and institutions have joined to fuel the center’s success. Its chief executive officer, Tony Thier, recently retired from Flambeau River Papers; UW–Extension has provided valuable educational and technical support; and volunteer opportunities draw professionals from various companies in the area. Park Falls attorney Janet Marvin helped the center gain nonprofit status last fall.

Thier says the center provides needed education for area residents. “It’s been very beneficial,” he says. “When I got involved, it really became a passion. I wanted to learn more about gardening and increase my skill. We try to involve the whole community.”

Geiger says the project has helped him in his academic career as he learned about project planning, gave presentations about the center at two national academic conferences and writes scholarly articles about his work there.

“I’ve been able to see this process through from an idea to reality,” says Geiger. “It’s been really rewarding.”

PHOTO – Michael Geiger (right) in the greenhouse at a hydroponic salad table workshop. The greenhouse features in-floor radiant heating and custom growing tables made of locally purchased white cedar and built by volunteers.

Photo credit – Michael Geiger

Communicating Science in the Digital Age

Two months after retiring from the Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal, where for 34 years he’d reported primarily on science and the environment, Ron Seely splays his hand on the table and points to a small knot of flesh on his palm.

It’s from how he cradled his iPhone, his physician told him, especially when Seely was constantly tweeting live from such events as legislative hearings on mining in Wisconsin.

“It was exhausting,” says Seely, who like many journalists balanced the new duties of tweeting and other social media tasks with researching and writing his stories, all while meeting daily deadlines. “It’s a vicious cycle: You create the expectation that people will have news instantly.”

Seely began his career in daily journalism with hot type and ended it with hot tweets. And his career—which includes serving as a teacher of life sciences communication at CALS—reflects the seismic changes that have jolted science journalism.

Take it from anyone who has ever struggled through freshman biology or o-chem: science news was hard enough to understand before the collapse of traditional media. Then Twitter and other social media exploded, blogs proliferated, reader comment sections swelled—and the science got even more complex.

It’s no longer just the newspaper plopping on your doorstep—the science journalism of years past, when discoveries were presented in one-way fashion by writers with science expertise and passively consumed by a trusting public. Science reporting was hit hard by the economic collapse of traditional media, with many science reporters laid off or not replaced upon retirement (example: the New York Times closed its environment desk early this year). As science journalism migrated online, web technology blurred the lines between professionally trained journalists, bloggers and other commentators, the public and, most notably, the scientists themselves, who face new and evolving challenges in understanding science communication.

Today, coverage is tweeted, re-tweeted, “liked” on Facebook, interpreted and reinterpreted by any willing participant—and is the target of instant and often rude, politically tinged reader commentary. With one in seven people actively using Facebook and Twitter users posting 340 million tweets daily, understanding the interaction between science news and readers is crucial.

In short, science communication is being reborn while the media reinvents itself online. That collision raises concern about how society views the science that can solve energy problems, mediate climate change, improve health and feed a hungry planet.

Stem cells, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology, bioenergy and other complex advancements have all poured down on an American public ill prepared to understand even basic science. The National Science Board, for instance, in 2010 reported that only 73 percent of U.S. adults were able to answer correctly that the earth revolves around the sun; only 52 percent could say how long that takes. And a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that only 47 percent of respondents knew that electrons were smaller than atoms.

That lack of knowledge, combined with built-in attitudes about science among much of the public—often rooted in religious or political beliefs—makes groundbreaking discoveries difficult to grasp or embrace.

“We’re no longer just using microscopes. We’re using scanning, tunneling nanoscopes that go into 1,000 times more detail,” notes Dietram Scheufele, a CALS professor of life sciences communication. “The science is more complex, and just as complex is the question of what we want to do with that science.”

Small wonder that when the public turns to the media, it is often flummoxed, whipsawed by Internet trolls’ nasty comments and unsure what to think of the science’s legal, social and

We used to believe that if we only explained to people what the science is about, they would understand and support it.

ethical implications. In the process, is innovation handcuffed by public opinion at just the moment when society needs it most?

Against that backdrop, Scheufele and his colleague Dominique Brossard are in the vanguard of researchers who are trying to understand the emerging media landscape and its volatile dynamics.