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Bringing Ag Data to Life through Satellite Imagery

Posted by Rick Mueller, Spatial Analysis Research Section Head, National Agricultural Statistics Service in Research and Science Technology
Feb 21, 2017
Rick Mueller, Spatial Analysis Research Section Head, National Agricultural Statistics Service
Rick Mueller, Spatial Analysis Research Section Head, National Agricultural Statistics Service

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA's rich science and research portfolio.

2013 is the International Year of Statistics. As part of this global event, every month this year USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service will profile careers of individuals who are making significant contributions to improve agricultural statistics in the United States.

While most of the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) statisticians studied mathematics, economics or agriculture in school, my career path started in a completely different place. I came to NASS in the 1990s as an IT specialist to help the agency evolve its use of geospatial technology and contribute to the remote sensing acreage estimation program. And so, while most of the agency staff learned about agriculture by visiting fields, my knowledge of this intricate subject came from studying and analyzing satellite imagery.

When I began working with the remote sensing program, budget constraints limited satellite coverage and analysis to just one county in one state: Craighead County, Arkansas. NASS created this program to get acreage estimates from satellite imagery, and to provide timely updates of state and county area estimates.

Fast-forward almost twenty years, and the Cropland Data Layer (CDL) program has evolved to become a national land cover product and is disseminated via a geospatial interactive data portal called CropScape. The CDL provides a content-rich map of the agricultural landscape and useful statistics for 19 crops throughout the growing season to the Agricultural Statistics Board. These data are now an integral element of NASS’ crop estimates program.

In addition to seeing these projects operationalized, the most rewarding aspect of my job is developing collaborative partnerships. Through shared resources, technologies, satellites, and methods, these partnerships deliver improvements and expand our remote sensing and geospatial programs. Most recently a partnership with George Mason University helped launch a new interactive vegetation condition portal named VegScape.  By providing timely updates of vegetative or crop condition throughout the growing season, VegScape can show how well the corn is growing!

As I look back at my nearly-20-year career with NASS, the most important thing I have learned is that you don’t have to be a statistician to appreciate statistics. And as we celebrate the 2013 International Year of Statistics, it is important to remember that you don’t have to be a statistician to get involved in this important field. Whether by directly working with numbers or tools, or simply by responding to a survey, all of us can help contribute to accurate statistics around the world.

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William Herl
May 13, 2013

Mr. Mueller: A note to say thank you for your efforts in this area of expertise. As someone once said a picture is worth a thousand words.


John C. Miller
Jun 27, 2013

I work with agricultural companies and would love a map showing the concentrations of different crops across the US. Do you know if there is a public map for this?