CHICAGO (Reuters) - As severe weather ravaged the U.S. Midwest this spring, agricultural software company Sentera was swamped with frustrated farmers and traders uploading drone videos of waterlogged crop fields.
Farmers wanted the Minneapolis-based data company to help analyze how much acreage could still be planted, and spot damaged fields after floods kept farming states underwater for weeks.
The U.S. agricultural industry depends on estimates of how much acreage of soy, corn and other products have been planted. A major source is the benchmark survey of about 80,000 farmers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In June, the USDA acreage report’s projections far exceeded industry supply estimates, causing panic in the grain market. Corn futures fell 4%, the steepest one-day decline in nearly three years. The American Farm Bureau claimed the report triggered a nearly $2.6 billion drop in the value of new-crop corn.
Traders and analysts said the data failed to reflect the effect of massive floods and heavy rains on planting, prompting farmers and agricultural analysts to seek out technology companies that use sourced data like drone videos and satellite imagery to analyze conditions.
“That USDA report was an absolute joke,” said Brad Freking, owner of New Fashion Pork, which produces 1.4 million market hogs a year across seven U.S. states. “It created huge confusion.”
Sentera said the total volume of farm-field drone data processed so far this year has risen more than 12 times over the year-ago period, and volume is up more than 30 times in areas hard hit by floods and heavy rain, including Nebraska and Indiana.
“It’s been the year of uncertainty, and everyone - farmers, the market - is looking for data,” said Sentera Chief Executive Eric Taipale.
Farmers also flocked to Boston-based satellite imaging company Indigo Ag this summer, causing a 133% jump in downloads of its June crop acreage forecast report versus a year earlier, the company said in an email.
The U.S. farm belt is awaiting the next USDA data dump on Monday, which may provide a fresh acreage estimates after USDA resurveyed producers in 14 states.
Farmers are still angry about the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) June figures, putting USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue on the defensive about it this week at a Minnesota fair.
“This is not the first time I hear farmers say what NASS has found is wrong,” Perdue said. “Facts are facts, data is data and it’s done consistently.”
“There are limitations to (USDA’s) system,” said Carly Beneke, applied scientist with Santa Fe, New Mexico-based Descartes Labs, a satellite mapping company also used by farmers. “You can’t ask every single farmer across the country to provide information, and then turn all that data into something useful frequently.”
It is unclear just how many farmers are using drones for land surveys, but those interviewed by Reuters said they were trying to guard against surprises.
Iowa farmer Noah Coppess, 38, used his drones this year to help neighbors get a better picture of stressed crops. Fellow Iowan Michael Jackson has been shopping for a new infrared camera lens for his drone to better spot problems on his corn and soybean fields.
“It’s just the direction we’re heading in modern times,” Jackson said.
Writing by P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Additional reporting by Julie Ingwersen, Karl Plume, Tom Polansek and Karen Braun in Chicago, and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by David Gaffen and Richard Chang