Wisconsin startup uses drones to survey farmland
Joe Paul's New Lisbon-based firm FlightSight takes drone photos of farmland to help farmers improve their crops. It's part of a new wave of technology-based jobs in the agriculture sector.
GRAND MARSH - When Joe Paul and Megan and Eric Wallendal talk shop, it's in the language of fertilizers and nutrients. They're talking about their crops and the current status of their fields. And as they do, they reference the image files collected by a drone flying over the cornfields at Wallendal Farms.
The Wallendals are focused on growing the food, while Paul's three-foot fixed-wing drone flies over their fields, gathering crop information that will help the farmers make important business and production decisions.
The drone “gives producers a whole new view of their operation," Paul said. They see things in a new way from the sky.
Paul grew up on a family farm in New Lisbon, a Juneau County city of about 2,500. As a young man, he lived in several states and became a flight instructor. But about five years ago he returned to the family farm. The farm was sold in August 2016 and a few months later Paul launched his new drone-based agriculture imaging and data service, FlightSight, as a way to meld his passions for aviation and farming.
At 27, Paul is the kind of young professional many in Wisconsin are trying to keep here. After years of working on his traditional flight career in places like Michigan, Arizona, and San Diego, he's back in the county where he grew up and where his family lives.
“Being in the country and seeing the food being produced, there’s a real satisfaction with growing a good crop,” he said. “We no longer own a farm, but to be able to be in the business and involved in agriculture, it feels good.”
State agencies and agribusiness advocates have been working to get young people to look at careers in the industry, pointing to science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. Jobs in the industry can range from working with animal genetics and agronomy to other professional skills like accounting, marketing and sales.
And now, drone operator
The number of farmers, and farmers, has been shrinking in the state and nation for decades. Wisconsin had 68,900 farms in 2015, 100 fewer than the year before — and 7,600 fewer than 2005, according to state figures. Even with a diminishing number of farms, agriculture has an annual economic impact of about $88.3 billion in the state.
For hands-on farming, new farmers face high start-up costs: equipment, land rent, animals and ongoing costs for things like fertilizer, fuel and seed can make going into the field a daunting task for farmers who didn’t grow up with family in the business.
Adding to all those factors, a diminishing number of young people have a direct connection to a farm, unlike in decades past, when grandparents or other relatives may have owned a farm.
On a sunny day in late June, Paul is on edge of a deep green cornfield growing from the sandy soil of central Wisconsin. After programming the flight pattern of the drone on a laptop on the front seat of his van, he picks up the black vehicle walks into an open area.
Holding the drone at waist height, he gives it three shakes to tell it's time to fly, then takes a few fast steps and casts the tool skyward, its small engine emitting a high-pitched whine as it takes off into the sky.
Another day at work in the ag sector.
A new path to a needed career
Even young people with established farms may balk at the career and lifestyle of owning and operating a farm: the long hours, the ups and downs of commodity markets, and of course the role uncontrollable factors such as weather play in the business.
Wisconsin leaders know the state needs more people in its agriculture and agribusiness jobs, and has launched various local and state level initiatives aimed at filling the void.
Efforts include a program along the lakeshore coupling older farmers near retirement with young farmers looking for a way into the industry. In the spring, the Wisconsin Legislature began work on a bill that would create a Veteran Farmer Assistance and Outreach Program, which is designed to recruit military veterans to farming.
For the past few decades, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation has offered a program focused on providing farmers between the ages of 18 and 35 with a social and professional network similar to other young professional networks that have sprung up in Wisconsin.
The network encompasses careers beyond owning and operating a farm.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that agriculture equals farming — that to be in agriculture you have to be a farmer,” said Wendy Kannel, director of training & leadership development with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. "That’s definitely not the case. Farmers are a very important part of agriculture, but we need thousands of people to support farmers.”
The Young Farmer and Agriculturist program encompasses both farm owners and operators and those working in other segments of agribusiness. During the first three months of the year, program chapters hosted 27 social and networking events and 13 educational events that involved about 1,500 members.
The program also offers chapters at three University of Wisconsin schools: Madison, Platteville and River Falls.
“We have a lot of jobs that go unfilled every year,” Kannel said. “The opportunities in agriculture are endless and if you want a job in agriculture, there’s a job for you. We are working on promoting everything that is awesome about working in agriculture.”
As an example, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development projects an 11 percent growth, about 201 jobs, in the number of agricultural and food science technicians the state will need by 2024. It also says the number of agricultural equipment operators will expand 13 percent to 4,515 jobs in the same time.
The industry is also getting older. The average age of a farmer was 48 in the early 1980s; it climbed to almost 57 in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture.
An increase in the use of technology on the farm holds potential to reverse the migration of young people away from the career.
New equipment allows tractors to operate themselves and lay out exact amounts of the fertilizer while automatic milking systems — requiring both engineers for design and technicians for repairs — are making inroads into more farm parlors.
“I think it makes it more exciting for young people to be involved because it isn’t just driving a tractor or milking a cow, it’s all the technological applications they’re using in other industries,” said Matt Glewen, general manager of Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, an annual show highlighting new farm products and practices. “I see more young people excited about agriculture in the last 10 years than the previous 10 years.”
'Nothing quite like home'
Megan and Eric Wallendal returned to farm in Wisconsin after working in other careers near Philadelphia. Their farm, which grows a long list of vegetables from corn and pumpkins to rye, has been willing to embrace new technologies as they emerge. Drones are one of those tools.
The Wallendals owns a drone of their own, but they are relying on Paul’s expertise as they build experience with the new technology.
“Our generation is ready and hungry for a lot more data,” said 30-year-old Megan Wallendal, who carries the title of research, technology and business development manager for the farm.
She doesn’t expect the pace of technology adoption will wane in the coming decades.
“It’s so hard to picture what kind of technology will be available. ... I’m hoping when we have kids, maybe they’ll be coming back from a career to the farm an adding even more technology,” she said.
Paul is among the younger folks in the industry and is involved in a facet of the business that is a popular topic of conversation among farmers.
Paul’s sensors look at farm fields in the green, red, near IR, and red edge bands. That imagery is then transferred into data and index maps that can show farmers things like crop stress and winterkill that can help shape planting, irrigation and fertilizing decisions.
“It’s not a solve-all problem, they’re not going to tell you exactly what your yield is going to be, but it’s another tool that allows farmers to increase their scouting efficiency,” Paul said.
It’s also something that may keep young people like Paul in Wisconsin.
“I’ve been able to travel and been to other parts of the world, and I’m pretty content right here,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like home. I wouldn’t have said that when I was 19 or 20, but things change.”