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Smart Farming Part 2

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Smart Farming Part 2

Cloud Ag visualization showing variable soil carbon levels across a single field. Image credit: Cloud AgCloud

This is the second in a series on Smart Farming; this one focusing on things way above the Earth and well, the earth of the Earth.  This is a post about how technology projects can be applied to increasingly important sustainability issues of all sorts, including, literally the soil under our feet.  It’s also a post about collaboration, combining different disciplines, and listening to stakeholders, all important principles of the 7th Edition PMBOK® Guide.

  I open with a quote from the article from UMass Magazine.

A few years ago, (UMass) geosciences Assistant Professor Isaac Larsen was driving along in the Midwest, near where he grew up. “The hilltops in the landscape no longer had organic rich soil—just subsoil. I could tell by the color,” he recalls. A big driver of soil erosion and degradation is the plow. “Every time a plow goes across the landscape, it fluffs up the soil,” Larsen explains, "and the soil moves down the slope.” Over the course of a century and a half, that’s a lot of soil.

What to do? Supported by NASA, Larsen and his team are utilizing satellite imagery to analyze the problem. “We can relate soil color that we see in satellite imagery to the amount of carbon in the soil, and then relate that amount of carbon to a soil horizon,”—or soil layer—explains Evan Thaler, a doctoral student working with Larsen. The team has been able to show that around a third of all cultivated land in the United States has lost its rich topsoil. “The next step,” says Thaler, “is for policy makers to incorporate this information. If we can rebuild the carbon in the hilltops, we’re actually pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and putting it back in the soil, so it’s absolutely a climate change issue as well.” Larsen backs that up. “We have to mitigate the effect we’ve had,” he says. “Restoration of carbon to soils is one piece of the solution.”

So, this project was about applying satellite technology and business intelligence (BI) to collate and advance data into information, into knowledge, providing wisdom – a key theme for project managers.  If you are not familiar with the DIKW pyramid, today is the day you should investigate it.  You can start with this excellent article (Click here to read an outstanding article on the topic).


I found this theme reiterated in several diverse sources.  In this article from NPR, Evan Thaler is quoted again:

The soil that's darkest in color is widely known as topsoil. Soil scientists call this layer the "A-horizon." It's the "black, organic, rich soil that's really good for growing crops," says Evan Thaler, a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

It's full of living microorganisms and decaying plant roots, also called organic carbon. When settlers first arrived in the Midwest, it was everywhere, created from centuries of accumulated prairie grass. Plowing, though, released much of the trapped carbon, and topsoil was also lost to wind and water erosion. The soil that remains is often much lighter in color.


It's clear that this is important, but even more so when you note the connection to climate change, this gets even more interesting.  I found this article in a site dedicated to applying Artificial Intelligence to practical matters – in this case, soil carbon monitoring, the very topic of this Smart Farming post.

In short, it describes how soil systems (healthy ones, that is!) act as a carbon “sink” by sequestering atmospheric CO2, thus reducing greenhouse gas concentrations.  Healthy soil, says the article, is capable of storing twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and three times that in above-ground vegetation.  The article answers the question: “why initiate projects to carefully measure soil carbon?

Why should we monitor soil carbon:

  • Improving Crop Performance: Building up healthy levels of soil organic matter can provide growers with higher yielding harvests showing greater resilience in changing climates (Paustian et al., 2019)
  • Carbon Trading: With the proposed advent of an international carbon market and carbon trading, accurate monitoring of soil carbon will become increasingly important (Johns et al,. 2017).
  • Mitigating Climate Change: Optimising natural carbon sequestration by improving soil conservation practices and restoring degraded soils can help to reduce concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. As little as a 0.1% increase in organic matter can result in an additional 8.9 tonnes of CO2 sequestered per hectare annually by growers

Ironically, this post about the Earth’s soil provides some help for project managers who want to ‘build from the ground up’ in terms of advancing data into information, knowledge, and wisdom.


For more digging (pun intended):

“Soil organic carbon and carbon sequestration in Western Australia”

“Extent of Soil Loss Across the US Corn Belt”

“Quantifying carbon for agricultural soil management: from the current status toward a global soil information system”

Davis, et al , “Review of Soil Organic Carbon Measurement Protocols: A U.S. and Brazil Comparison and Recommendation”

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: November 28, 2021 10:11 PM | Permalink

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