Posted December 2, 2015

Catch cheating farmers - there's an app for that!

Satellite data on soil wetness can be used to catch farmers who pretend to make their land available for part-time nature conservation, but who in fact attempt to pocket subsidies they don't deserve. An app is in preparation to check up on farmers behavior using said satellite data.

In this blog we've covered soil moisture measurements by satellite twice before. Now here's a very surprising and interesting example of the practical use of such data, courtesy of Vandersat, the new company that our trusted source Richard de Jeu is involved with. Vandersat collects moisture data form Esa's SMOS (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity) and NASA's SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) satellites, as well as from Esa's newer Sentinel satellites. All in all, Vandersat can combine those data to obtain an unprecedented resolution of 100 x 100 m for soil moisture. So what can you do with that? That's where the cheating farmers come in.

In the Netherlands, agricultural land serves two purposes. On it, crops are grown when the season is right. The rest of the year, the land is available for different things, like parking cars (not very common).

'One way farmers can make an extra buck is by flooding their land in the early months of the year, to suit waterbirds,' says Richard de Jeu. 'The government then pays them for some lost productivity. In some cases there are subsidies for postponing their mowing of the land, which helps breeding birds.' This may strike people from different parts of the world as weird, but it's a way for the government to buy nature from the farmers, as it were, which the taxpayers can then enjoy.

'There's even a third way,' adds De Jeu. 'After the harvest farmers can sow a special crop that is not productive for them, but protects the soil from erosion and enhances soil life.'

Where there are subsidies, there are opportunities for fraud, so there is a need for government inspection. Has a farmer really flooded the land, postponed mowing or sown this ant-erosion crop? 'Until now, inspectors visit farmers, look around, and then decide whether the farmer is entitled to a subsidy. But farmers have been known to pull the plug on their inundated land as soon as the inspector left and the subsidy was granted,' explains De Jeu. By visiting farmers in person, inspectors can check on just 5% of subsidy requests.

'Using satellite data, you can make that 100%, without leaving your office,' says De Jeu. 'You can see if a particular lot is flooded, how long it has been so, or if there are post-harvest crops growing.' He is now working with the Dutch government to create an app that can make this easy. Since this concerns European regulations on agriculture and nature, the app can be used in other European countries as well

A prototype of said app should be finished early next year. Shortly afterwards De Jeu hopes for a government decision to roll it out for the Netherlands.

About Herbert Blankesteijn

Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.