Shaping the future of sustainable farming technology through integrative precision agriculture (IPA)
Sound Effect: [music] Emily Davenport: Welcome to Cultivating Curiosity, where we get down and dirty with the experts on all the ways science and agriculture touch our lives from what we eat to how we live. I'm Emily Davenport. Jordan Powers: And I'm Jordan Powers. And we're from the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Sound Effect: [chime] Jordan Powers: We are here this morning with George Vellidis, professor in Crop and Soil Sciences and Simer Virk, assistant professor and Extension Precision Agricultural Specialist in Crop and Soil Sciences. Typically we say
thanks for joining us, but because we're here in Tifton, thank you for having us. George Vellidis: You're very welcome. Glad you're here. Simer Virk: Yeah. Thanks for driving down here. Jordan Powers: Absolutely. We have been having a blast. So, to
kick things off, every day, we are trying to break down the stereotypes of agriculture being more than just cows and plows. Obviously, IPA, not the beer, is a huge part of this. Can you tell us more about what IPA encompasses? George Vellidis: Well, so IPA maybe we should define IPA first. So, IPA stands for Integrative Precision Agriculture. And I think we have to unpack both terms. First, the precision agriculture then the integrative. So precision agriculture is a term that we use to define a suite of technologies and knowledge bases that help us use data or information to make better decisions in farming. So for
example, if we have a field that has different soil types, more commonly, our farmers use the same amount of fertilizer across all that field. But we know that different soil types will require different amounts of fertilizer. So we use information to make better decisions about how to spread that fertilizer. That's the precision agriculture part. The
integrative now is a new term that we've added to precision agriculture to imply that we're working across many disciplines, not just agronomy and engineering, but also computer science, social sciences, economics to bring the whole package together so that precision agriculture is more functional and more readily adoptable by farmers. Jordan Powers: Simer, anything to add there? Simer Virk: If you kind of look back down 10, 20 years when precision ag started is also very focused on just technology just to improve some practices, stuff like that. But over the years, we have so much new technologies. And like we talked yesterday, we have a lot of data that technologies are generating and we need expertise to analyze and data to make more informed decisions. Sound Effect: [chime] Jordan Powers: We took a three hour field trip down from Athens to Tifton, not only to chat with Simer and George, but also to head out into the field with Simer. We weren't sure what
would be in store for us that day, but Simer gave us directions to head to a nearby farm so we could check out some precision agriculture technology in action. Emily Davenport: When we got to the farm, we found that Simer and a few grad students were in the process of testing the accuracy of a spray drone. This is a drone that can be used by farmers to spray herbicides and pesticides on their crops in a more targeted way. Jordan Powers: And that drone was surprisingly big. It took
two people to lift it and it sounds like a small helicopter. Come along with us into the field to experience what we learned that day. Sound Effect: [drone taking off and beeping] Simer Virk: So I actually came to the U.S. 12 years ago, and when I came, we were pretty early in the precision ag, we were still talking about GPS on a tractor and all that. And we did a lot of work that you know, back then at Auburn when I was doing my Master's. And nobody would have thought how far the technology will come in 10 years. Because if I look back
today at what we were doing back then we were like, Oh my gosh, you know, and the scale, I usually talk about the resolution. So like if we were working, I usually take an example of a sprayer, let's say so if it has a 90 foot boom, we were able to break that boom into five sections. So the max, you could have controlled at a time was a 15 foot section, right? That's your resolution that you can turn it on and off or do something and that's by 15 foot at a time. Where we are
today, because we're able to control each nozzle individually, so it's 12 to 18 inches, you know. So the resolution from 15 to 18. And not only that, we have the precision to turn each nozzle on and off as needed, where we need in the field. You know, same thing with the planting, we got so much information that's coming in the cab when we're planting that the minute something happens on that planter, like if one row stopped planting, it's not planting properly or something, all that data is right there and telling you hey, you need to stop right now fix it before you go. You know, so all that technology, it's just and that's why I say I don't know where we will be in five years from that perspective. Sound Effect: [drone motor] Emily Davenport: So on the day we visited, Simer and his students were working on testing the accuracy of a spray drone, which you can hear zooming by in the audio to test out what the manufacturer says the drone can do versus how it actually performs in the field under a variety of conditions.
Jordan Powers: So say it's really windy on a day that a grower is trying to use a drone to spray their crops. That application of spray is going to look a lot different than it would on a day with very little wind. Simer and his students are trying to get a better idea of what it looks like, and what settings they can tell growers to use to maximize the efficiency of the drone. Emily Davenport: And while some of that work involves hanging out in the field playing around with a giant flying robot, a lot of it looks like sitting in a lab analyzing a lot of data. Sound Effect: [drone motor] Simer Virk: ...swath of how far can the drone spray? Right? So what we're trying to measure is, what does it really look like, right? Like, the controller, it says 13 feet, but it's really 12 foot, 10 foot, 13 or more or something. So what we're doing
is putting these data collectors every one foot all across it, now we're doing the lower height, which is only about five foot right now. But once it goes to 10 foot, you see how long we got it set, so it goes all the way down there. So we're trying to kind of verify a lot of that. And then other big thing is what you just don't want to see how far it's spraying, but how uniformly it sprays across the swath, right? So that other interest of ours here is different settings, how does and we want to kind of recommend or suggest the settings to growers that maximizes, you know, the uniformity and application efficiency, stuff like that. But see how you can see the
deposition on there? Emily Davenport: Oh, because it's spraying dye? Simer Virk: Well, no. So this card's called water-sensitive paper. The minute the water touches it. Unknown: [background talking] Emily Davenport: ...it changes color
Simer Virk: Yeah, so and you can just tell looking at it, right, that this card has a pretty good deposition all over it, even that one. But there are some right here that are not as good as those. So we're already seeing some non uniformity, right, across the swath. That's where we're kind of after is measuring and assessing that and all and we got an instrument back in the lab where Cole's gonna put these cards, scan these cards in a digitizer. It's a high resolution microscope kind of thing and it takes a picture and it digitizes the card, and then it will tell you exactly how much percent of the coverage is on this card.
Emily Davenport: Okay. Wow. Simer Virk: And it will also tell you the size of the droplets that are on there, like microns and all that. So this kind of data, he's going to run through it all. So we're kind
of, this is probably our, we did a similar testing last year with another smaller drone, but I think this is probably going to be our biggest testing so far. For the first one of the many ones. But we're like spending more than 3000 cards just on just today. Jordan Powers: 3000 cards in a day? Simer Virk: Yes. Well, yeah, last time we did about 25. He,
and that's why I said he's gonna probably over the next couple days, just gonna sit and process these to get all that data, you know, because these are water sensitive. You don't want to store them for more than a week or so. They start absorbing moisture. But Jordan Powers: So then this work will directly benefit the growers in Georgia? Simer Virk: It's directly probably, well, that's why this is basically to answer some of the questions we've been getting, you know, and we're doing this early on just without the crop here right now, just to kind of see what this looks with water. And we then later in the season, we have projects where besides other precision ag stuff research, we're doing planter, sprayer, fertilizer, we're actually going to use drone to spray fungicides in corn this year, defoliation in cotton, and we're actually going to do some weed management too, so we can collect some data and have some access, have some information to learn more about it, but also, again, if they have any questions, and we can say, well, this is what we noticed in our trials. That's what we try to do is evaluate technologies to kind of provide them or help them, you know, with that. So, early
on when kind of drones -- and I've been using the other drones for a long time. You know, which just takes pictures and all that and other sensors. Now the growers are not using that, you know, at all because they don't benefit directly in their operation in one way or another. Some of the consultants may use that for scouting and all that. Here, that's why early on, we were like, yeah, the drone's been around for a while. We kind of saw where their fit was, you know, last over four or five years.
Emily Davenport: Mm-hmm. Simer Virk: But when the spray drone kind of came along, I was kind of earlier, again the same, was like, I don't think a lot of people are going to get into it all that, but it's actually the opposite of now. It's not just taking a picture or anything, it's actually you're able to spray. So I think that and plus, again, I think it's got a little wow factor to it, you know, because if it flies and sprays. So a lot of people are jumping
on and just from the sheer amount of calls I got last year, it was like, okay, we definitely need to get on it and start learning more. And, you know, so we're still, I think, kind of see, we're seeing a lot more interest from growers, especially from people who want to get in the commercial side of the things like, I don't think like every grower is just going to buy one and all use that. We'll probably use this more like, and I've already liked the calls, I got, like, last year, even recently, you know, it's like someone who's trying to offer it as a business. You know, he's, he's not just buying
one. He's like, I'm gonna buy three of them, have a trailer set up, everything so I can resell, recharge. We have technologies to do better. Right. And, and, and some
operations today, the technology has surpassed the science. We're way ahead on technology, but we don't have the science behind it yet. You know, so a lot of our research is, and that's why I tell people, you know, every time we start talking about the precision ag or some something, you know, in agriculture, they're like, oh, are you guys not working on developing this or that type of sensors, this? I was like, we don't need more sensors. We have sensors for stuff that we don't, we're not using today. So we're trying to figure out how to use them first, before we develop our own for something that we don't need. And that's the problem, you know, we got to find a
problem and create a solution for it, instead of just, you know, creating a solution for a problem that don't exist. And that's kind of where, you know, so some of the basic stuff is still the same. The planter and all that the basic functionality of every equipment is still the same, we're just adding more sensors, technology, control system, you know, nd that's why when we talk about it, I usually say, you know, we don't develop and all that, to a lot of extent, we do some development work, but a lot of it is evaluation, because we got so much technologies and all that we're trying to see and make sure how do those fit in our production systems in Georgia and Southeast. But guess what, everything being developed right now in ag is for corn and soybeans up in the Midwest, right? Because that's where all the big players are. So our job
is, in a way, is also to bring them here and to kind of test it for cotton and peanuts, you know? So we have moved pretty far on like, even the precision planting side, on corn and beans, and even cotton but not there for peanuts, you know. So that's one thing that's constantly trying to see, okay, how do we take some of this, you know, technology and make it fit? How do we, one of our recent, I think a few of us recently have been working a lot with industry because they see Georgia as a pretty big player, you know, in cotton and peanuts and even precision ag and technology to so we're kind of starting the collaborations, either, you know, they're interested in working with us, or we're bringing them to the table like, hey, we need to develop solutions for these, you know, because these are our challenges which are more specific to our state or Southeast, you know, not in coins, corn and soybean over there. So that's kind of where we're going, you know, a lot of that extent, but it also kind of makes us unique in the way that we have a lot of growers who use precision, ag or ag technology every day on their farm, you know. So it's not-- they see the value behind it. And it's just
the process of getting used to technology and using it on their farm. Sound Effect: [drone motor] Emily Davenport: We'll link video of the drone in the show notes so you can see it in action. In the meantime, let's get back to our interview with George and Simer. Sound Effect: [chime] Emily Davenport: You mentioned that IPA touches a lot of different parts of the ag industry. Can you talk a little bit more about which sectors IPA touches? George Vellidis: In the traditional sense, we're probably looking at the ag equipment companies and the people who produce fertilizers and other inputs for our crops.
But now as we are trying to use all these reams of data that Simer mentioned, to make better decisions, we're moving into working with companies and colleagues who, for example, develop work on artificial intelligence. So how does artificial intelligence come into this? So, artificial intelligence is software that can use lots of data to get trained to look at patterns, and then be able to forecast what may happen based on current conditions. And so we're working very closely now with our colleagues in computer science to help us develop these kinds of decision support tools that will help us predict what's going on in the future based on our experiences from the past. Jordan Powers: So I think in a previous answer, you mentioned that IPA's been around 10 to 20 years is that right? Simer Virk: Precision ag. Jordan Powers: Precision ag. George Vellidis: So at UGA we started working on precision ag in the mid-1990s. So we're getting close to 30 years.
Simer Virk: Yeah. Jordan Powers: Can you tell us a little bit more about that history, maybe in general, and then specific to the progression within UGA? George Vellidis: Yeah, I've got a great story to tell you about how we started. It all started because of two graduate students. So we had two Australian graduate students in what is Crop and Soil Sciences now. And they both wanted to
look at the spatial variability of fields, one wanted to look at the spatial variability of soils, and the other one, the spatial variability of yields. And they came to us and said, hey, we want to do this, help us. And none of us were really thinking about that at the time. And that motivated us to start understanding the spatial variability of soils and to develop technology to measure the spatial variability of yields. And that's where it all started at UGA. We formed a core
team here on the Tifton Campus. And then gradually, the core team expanded to all the campuses of the College of Ag and Environmental Sciences, and now we're bringing in colleagues from other colleges and other disciplines to be the IPA. Jordan Powers: For our listeners who might not know, can you define or explain a little bit about what spatial variability is? Simer Virk: Precision ag exists because of spatial variability, because if all our fields, you know, whether it's soil or crop that's growing in it, is all uniform across the field, right, we would be just doing a basic single application rate of, we will be applying everything at the same rate, and treating it all the same, right? The reason the precision ag is we're trying to detect and address the variability and the variability, the spatial variability is that if you have, let's say, 100 acre field or something, that field is not constant throughout in terms of soil and crop properties. The soil texture type can vary very significantly within the same field, even among the fields on a farm. And that impacts the crop growth, the nutrient uptake and everything. So what we do in
precision ag is try to use tools and technologies to detect that spatial variability, and then also use technologies to address that by doing variable rate application. So it's kind of almost like the core of precision ag. Everyone: [laughter] Simer Virk: That's what we, what we work on basically every day, you know. Jordan Powers: That's a very important definition. Emily Davenport: Yeah.
George Vellidis: Yeah, so let me add to that a little bit. The goal is to become more efficient in our practices. So when we address spatial variability, we're redistributing resources. So we're putting more where more is needed, and less where less is needed. So we may end up using the same amount of product, but it's redistributed. Or sometimes we end up using less product, sometimes more product, it depends on what each spot in the field needs. But it's all about improving
efficiency. It's not just for fun. Jordan Powers: Just out spending 12 hour days in the field for fun. George Vellidis: Well, we have fun. But farmers have to look at this from a perspective of, does it improve my bottom line? And am I becoming more efficient? So for them, it's a real bottom line decision. Jordan Powers: Absolutely.
Simer Virk: And that has changed a lot. We were just having this conversation with like Senator Warnock when he visited. He was trying to understand what what all precision ag helps with today. And I think one of the things we can hit on, is back when precision ag started, as George mentioned, our goal early on was maybe to just be more productive, right? Not maybe look at profitability early on when then as we kind of start implementing more like okay, it has to economically make sense for a grower to make money, right? Not just if it needs more, keep putting more. He may be increasing the yield, but he may not be profitable in those parts, right. And then I think as we progress in the precision ag, we kind of start including these other productivity, profitability, efficiency, and recently sustainability. Because whatever we're doing, we need to
make sure that we can do this over the years and coming to be more profitable, productive, sustainable and efficient, right? And I think those are some of the key terms that we have added on as we learn more and more because it's been a long learning process even for me, but especially you've been involved in 30 years, it has changed the whole era of precision ag, it's changed a lot. George Vellidis: Yeah, Simer makes a very good point. So what he was describing is that when we first started out, we were envisioning understanding spatial variability and making the whole field look completely uniform. And we realized very quickly that to make an area that has very poor soils produce at the same rate as an area that has fertile soils, you have to invest a lot in resources, and you're losing money in the end there. So the idea now is to maximize the profitability in different parts of the field by adjusting what you want to apply there to meet the yield potential of that area. Emily Davenport: Can you talk a little bit more about how IPA is improving the environmental impact of agriculture? George Vellidis: The sustainability part of precision ag is a really key issue. And it's very clear that when you
are customizing the amount of fertilizer or water or whatever it is, you're applying to a crop so that it meets the crop's needs, and you're not putting on extra, you are minimizing the possibility that an extreme rain event will force fertilizer off the field and contaminate streams and rivers or lakes or groundwater. So that's how precision ag improves our mental sustainability of production systems. And it's interesting that in some parts of the world, what drives adoption of precision agriculture is exactly the environmental sustainability that it offers. Like in Europe, for example, the European Union
has, in fact, policies that encourage farmers to adopt precision farming to minimize any potential contamination of the environment. From fertilizers, for example. Jordan Powers: You're looking beyond what is helping the farm and the farmer and the yield, but looking at what's also helping the communities surrounding the farms and the environment in general. Simer Virk: Early on, we had a very big emphasis on fertilizer and all that because we were doing a lot of variable rate fertilizer application of all that. Recently, we also have a lot of technologies. And there's a big kind of commotion about pesticides used in agriculture, right? That we need to reduce pesticides, you know, all that. And there's different groups that are, you know, whether in the favor or not in the favor.
And one thing that precision ag I think plays a very critical role, we can't do agriculture today, or raise crops without pesticides, period. They're a very important part of crop production. One thing that precision technology, especially from that perspective, playing a big role today is making sure we are only applying where it's needed, how much it is needed, and all that. We even have technologies where they can sense artificial intelligence. We got cameras on the sprayers
that are sensing weeds in real time as it's going to the field and only applying it on the beat and not where it's not needed. To me, that's a pretty big advantage of those technologies where we're being not just, like, promoting sustainability, but also making the most use of the technology and the pesticides. And I think we're gonna see a lot more of those when we see integrating other like artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, all that together, computing science, with precision ag to make the most out of the technology and the data we're collecting today. George Vellidis: So what Simer is describing now is becoming reality finally, because it's been commercialized. But we had a graduate student here in Tifton, almost 20 years ago, her name was Hannah Green, who did a study on a herbicide used on peanut production using exactly what Simer was describing, using technology to detect the weed and then spot spraying each weed as the sprayer went by. And she documented that you could have a
70% savings on the herbicide and get as good control as farmers were doing by applying herbicide across the whole field. Because the farmers at that point are not able to detect where the weeds are. So they have to spray the whole field. Now we have the technology to identify the weeds and hit them one by one essentially. Right. So that's not only an economic savings,
but think about how much chemical you're applying on the environment. Simer Virk: And the other thing, tying back some of the integrative stuff, technology doesn't always mean like if we have it today, it's gonna get readily adopted every time, right? There has to be a process, plus the cost of technology, there's a lot of barriers too, but other thing we're seeing more is technology being integrated on the equipment from the early on. A lot of times back in the day, I'd say almost 10 years ago, when we have all this precision ag technology, it was all kind of optional. So that way a
grower can go buy a traditional piece of equipment -- a planter, sprayer, sprayer, whatever, right? And they can choose to get a technology on it from the factory, which was kind of a limited option back but then most of the option was a retrofit option that if they choose to use technology, they can have it retrofitted on their equipment, right? What we're seeing today is something that is also helping us in the adoption side or implementation side is the technology already being integrated back from the get go that this is available and this is the only option available if you're going to buy it or with few advanced options available. But the basic already has a technology on it, you know, so that's helping us a lot. And what that also does is, like I said, the cost of technologies, a pretty big thing for a grower to consider is how is it gonna give me the return on my investment and everything. And as the technology more advances, and they see the benefit and everything, I think we're also seeing a little bit of the technology cost maybe becoming more affordable.
Jordan Powers: Yeah, that's helping the adoption. Simer Virk: Exactly. Jordan Powers: You have to move forward with it. That actually tees up our next question really perfectly. Yesterday, when we were out in the field with you, Simer, you were trialing spray drones, which we know is one component of IPA. But we know it's one small component and there are so many other things that IPA involves. We talked a little bit about weed control
just now. But what are some of the other technologies involved in integrative precision agriculture? Simer Virk: These days, if we talk about precision ag, the lot of people just think drones are precision ag, that's the only thing think about precision ag or if someone's doing some work on, you know, just nutrient application, they think that's only the precision ag, whereas precision ag encompasses a lot of things, right? I mean, I'd be even familiar about some of the work going on in the other cropping systems or animal or livestock, all that because I work very primarily in the row crop side, right? But it starts very early from get going when we do precision soil sampling to the spatial variability, we have precision technologies on variable rate, nutrient and fertilizer application. I touched a little bit on precision planting, how we have the ability today to very precisely place and meter seed in the soil. We have very advanced precision technologies on the sprayer side, for precision application of chemicals, we have in-season remote sensing, and that's where those drones become a small part of, we're able to detect, you know, scout, or even use satellite imagery, which is available to us today. And then we kind of go into the harvest technologies where we can monitor and map yield. And then that don't even end there. Then
we got all this data through the year that we collected. And now we got to use something to analyze or look at that data to maybe even see how we're going to improve our crop production for the next year. Right? To me, that's the whole cycle that starts very early in the season goes through the whole and don't even end because now you're using all that data to plan for the next year. And that's what to me is a whole precision ag cycle with multiple technologies, and every technology just is a part of it. George Vellidis: There are lots of exciting things going on. And
it's difficult for those of us who began our careers in row crop agriculture to think beyond that. But I'm trying very hard to do that. Just to give you an example of what I'm working on, in my mind, precision agriculture is addressing when, where and how much to apply. So when you're talking about any kind of crops, and even if you're talking about animals, those are three things you have to keep in mind, you know, when do they need it? How much do they need it? And where do they need it? So I focus my energies, most recently, over the last 10 years on precision irrigation, which is trying to understand where in the field we need, how much water and when should we apply to maximize the efficiency of our irrigation systems, and also to maximize the potential of yield that the crops offer us. So if Simer is figuring out how to put on the perfect amount of fertilizer, if I can't put on the perfect amount of water, that fertilizer is not going to be used properly. So no matter
what he does, it's not as efficient as it could be. So we are developing, my group, technologies to help farmers make better decisions about when to irrigate, and then also where to apply that water different parts of the fields. Because soils really determine how much water plant needs and how frequently. But you could also extrapolate this to looking at
plant diseases. So we have just gotten a project funded Dr. Guoyu Lu in the College of Engineering is the PI on this. I'm on it and Dr. Bhabesh Dutta in our plant pathology department is on it. And what we're going to be doing is using robotics sensing and artificial intelligence to detect diseases in Vidalia onions in advance of when they're visible to a scout.
So the idea is to enable a robot to be running through the field taking photographs of plant leaves, processing that information and looking in its library to say, oh, is this spot on a leaf a disease that I know about? And if it is, okay, where is it in the field and then send an alert to the grower to say hey, you need to come apply prophylactic spray in this part of the field to prevent this disease from developing and growing and spreading. So this is where we are and a good way to think about precision ag is now it's digital ag. It's like, how do we collect information, process it and help make better decisions? And a lot of our colleagues are using that term now instead of precision ag. Jordan Powers: Digital ag.
Emily Davenport: Mm-hmm. Jordan Powers: And Simer, you were talking a little bit yesterday about kind of the indecisiveness that when you're so invested as a grower in your crop and in the yield, you tend to maybe over nurture more than anything and how these technologies are helping really fine tune what that looks like and take away in a good way some of that decision making power from the grower, which is wonderful at the end of the day for everybody involved. Simer Virk: Yeah, no, I think that's the neat part about it. Like I said, us as human beings, we're not good at making decisions, right? Because irrigating or fertilizing or something, we're always either, oh I'm just gonna go ahead and apply every week or, you know, if it's irrigation, just turn the pivot on, if it's fertilizer, I'm gonna apply a full rate, you know, because I don't want to under apply, it may hurt my yield, all that. And I think what, whether it's soil
moisture sensors or technologies on, you know, for measuring those plant nutrient status or some other thing, it's helping us make better decisions, because it's telling us, hey, you should be able to cut back on a lot of days without any yield penalty, or any you know, and I think all that money saved is again, profitability, but also that's part of the sustainability too, right? That we're not just over applying all the time, or under applying in some parts of the field. George Vellidis: Yeah, think about in a time of drought, and you're a farmer in southwest Georgia, you know, it's really hot outside, and you're trying to decide whether you should apply one more irrigation event to your crop, just to make sure that you don't lose a whole season's worth of investment, right? You don't have data to make that decision, what are you going to do, you're gonna apply that water. But if you've got some kind of tool that gives you confidence that, hey, your crops are fine, you don't need to apply this week, you can wait till next week, you won't apply that irrigation event. And that helps the environment because you're not using the water. But it also helps you because it costs you $7 an acre to apply an inch of water to your crops. So that's, you know, immediate
savings in many, many ways. But we need the confidence to be able to make that decision. So I look at what I do in my yard, you know, I have a small vegetable yard, I don't have any data, I go home, everything looks good, but maybe I should water the plants anyway, you know? Everyone: [laughter] George Vellidis: I don't have any sensors. I mean, I have all these sensors here at work, but I don't have them at home. So I
make these decisions just to make sure that my tomato plants will be producing tomatoes based on making sure that they're not lacking anything. Jordan Powers: I was telling Simer yesterday, I was killing all of my house plants by over nurturing before I got myself a very simple soil moisture sensor because I was like, they look like they could use water. And I'm like, oh, you're all drowning, I'm so sorry. So I rely on my very simple data at
home. George Vellidis: So that's a perfect example. Now you are enabled to make better decisions, right? Simer Virk: I've killed three plants in my office just because I didn't irrigate at all. Everyone: [laughter] Simer Virk: My wife's like, you're not getting any more plants for your office. Emily Davenport: Cut off.
Jordan Powers: No more for you. Emily Davenport: All right. Well, to change gears a tiny bit, can you both tell us a little bit more about your backgrounds and how you got involved in agriculture research in general and IPA as well? Simer Virk: Sure. I'm originally from India, I grew up there on small family farm. I did my bachelor's in ag engineering there and came to the US in 2010 to do a Master's at Auburn University. That was my very first kind of step into the
precision ag, and I always say this I was fortunate for the timing of it because we were still talking a lot about GPS auto steer, which was like a very backbone of what we do on precision ag you know, so for able to keep up with a lot of advancements from there but I worked with Dr. John Fulton there and he's probably my greatest mentor in my life, you know, who taught me everything and anything about precision ag and a lot of stuff even I use in my program today is just because what I learned from him and maybe improve upon those, you know. And then I worked in the industry for a little bit in Iowa for a sprayer company and then came back did my PhD here at UGA and, again, got more involved in the Extension side. Sound Effect: [chime] Emily Davenport: UGA Extension provides statewide outreach through CAES, the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, and Georgia 4-H, with a mission to translate the science of everyday living to foster healthy and prosperous communities. Sound Effect: [chime] Simer Virk: And then since 2020, August, been in this position, almost coming up on three years here, kept up on the precision ag and when I got an Extension position, it kind of more got on the forefront on the row crop production side on the Extension, precision ag. And again, I do work anywhere from soil sampling, harvest technologies, anything from that perspective.
Jordan Powers: And George, how about you? George Vellidis: Well, I'll start the way Simer did. I'm originally from Greece, and I came to the US to pursue a degree in agricultural engineering. Because in Greece at the time, there wasn't such a degree available. And the great thing about agricultural engineering is that it's a very broad based engineering discipline. So you learn a lot of different things. And when the opportunity arose to pursue
precision ag, both Simer, who's an ag engineer as well, and I have the skills that allow us to apply engineering solutions to whatever problem may crop up. So we're able to tackle the technology. We have colleagues here UGA who understand the agronomy and the production side so we can team up with them to make really good progress on precision ag problems and that's really been, I think, the the most exciting thing is to work as team members with people who understand all parts of the problem so that we're not going down a solution that is a dead end because we didn't consider the agronomy side or the plant pathology side and so on. Emily Davenport: For our audience that doesn't know, what does agronomy mean? Can you define that? George Vellidis: So agronomy is the study of growing plants, in my mind. Emily Davenport: Okay, easy.
George Vellidis: So an agronomist is someone who understands deeply the physiology, how a plant behaves and grows and the nutrients it needs and the environment it needs to grow successfully and produce yields for us. Simer Virk: Which the engineers are not technically good at. Emily Davenport: Okay. Simer Virk: But I think one thing, and I'm just following up on that, because one thing that being in College of Ag here and especially in Crop and Soil Department, I think we're really kind of fortunate to have colleagues that are really good and you know, their expertise areas but us working with them being housed in the Crop and Soil Department, we have picked up a lot of kind of basic agronomic skills. Usually engineers, like I said, don't tend to if we were in a very, if we were housed in I'd say like an engineering department, usually you don't expect us to grow a crop or know a lot about how to manage it, all that. We would probably do a very, very
applied engineering research on technology, all that. But here, I think we all of us are working in precision ag integrates the agronomic aspect, to some extent very well in our own programs here. So I think that's a pretty, pretty good benefit to have.
Jordan Powers: Absolutely. Yeah. A little more well rounded, ,maybe. Emily Davenport: Yeah. George Vellidis: I think you should describe the example of you working with John Snider on Amrit's project. Simer Virk: Yeah, we actually a lot of us, we co-advise graduate students again. So I recently had a graduate student, George
was a committee member, he was interested in precision ag, and he's from Nepal. He just graduated this semester, actually defended last week or two weeks ago. And his project was very unique in a way because he was co-advised between me and Dr. John Snider, who is our cotton physiologist. And he was interested in both aspects of learning physiology or some agronomy, and then the same time the precision ag. So what we did was like when we co-advised, I kind of took over, he used drones to quantify some physiological parameters in cotton, whereas in Dr. Snider's group he learned to physically measure you know, the physiological parameters and everything. And I think it gave him a really good kind of this
experience of not just on the precision ag side, but also on the agronomy and physiology side. And I was actually impressed, we were in his defense and I asked him some agronomic question just about growing the crop, how much did you fertilize all that? And I was impressed that he actually answered all that pretty well, because I was like, maybe, you know, I was just trying to see how much did he learn but he was pretty spot on on, like, what he actually learned and did so that was pretty impressive. Jordan Powers: Yeah.
Emily Davenport: Okay. Jordan Powers: Felt it out a little bit. Simer Virk: Yeah. Jordan Powers: To see how much. When we featured Amrit in a Cultivating profile through CAES a while back, so we'll make sure to link that in the show notes for our listeners as well. So I promise this next question is not a trick question. But I know
it will be a little tricky. Tell us what the day to day looks like in your jobs. Simer, let's start with you. Simer Virk: For me, it varies by the time of the year, especially being Extension-heavy appointment too. Early in the season, we have a lot of Extension meetings, you know, maybe not as much as some of our weed scientists, agronomists, but we still have a lot of travel across the state. Sometimes if a meeting is Southeast Georgia somewhere, you know, it may be three hours from here. So you may be on the road
all day just for that launch meeting or at night meeting something like that. When we get in April it's research season so it's less time in the office but a lot more outside in the field, you know, with the graduate students collecting data on all the projects, making sure we're getting everything planted in time and when it's planted, taking care of the crop, collecting as much data all that and once we get in the fall after harvest that's where maybe a little bit more time in the office, crunching all the data, writing the reports, you know, for all the funding agencies or attending some conferences and all that and then we usually because we're all multi crop you know, even in the row crop side we all probably do something in cotton, corn, peanuts, you know, some even in soybeans and other crops so it's like all year you're either collecting data, publishing data, writing, or presenting data somewhere. So a lot of it's a mix of those activities depending on, like I usually don't know what all we will do this week. You know, right now like after this gets done, we're headed to Blakely County to collect some data. When we get back I have another
meeting and then yesterday we were out in the field collecting drone data all day. So it just varies day by day and especially season and the year. Jordan Powers: So your work cycle follows a growing cycle.
Simer Virk: Yes, yes, very closely. Jordan Powers: How about you, George? George Vellidis: Well, my responsibilities are slightly different from Simer's, as I'm focused on research and teaching, and he's focused on extension and research. So let me start by telling you what I really enjoy the most about my job. I enjoy interacting with the students the most. So whether it's my graduate students or teaching, that's the the best part of my job. And I really enjoy conveying principles about precision ag to the students. I teach two
precision ag courses, one at the introductory undergraduate level, and another one that's at the graduate level. So that's the best part of the job. But the research is a lot of fun. We spend a lot of time working on writing research proposals, because all of our research is funded from extramural funding.
So I'm sure you hear this from all the faculty that you interview. But that takes up a huge percentage of our time. And it's not that I'm complaining about that. But that's the reality of our jobs these days. And that allows us to do all the things we enjoy doing with our graduate students, training our grad students, showing them new technologies, and then they carry the research on to the next step. And it's really gratifying to see these students graduate and move on to professional careers, some of them end up in academia. So now you have people who are your students who are now colleagues, and then you have others who are in an industry that become partners in these research projects that we work on.
Jordan Powers: That's amazing. So a lot of opportunities for the students that are coming out of the program to continue those relationships, which is gotta be exciting. George Vellidis: Yeah, one fun thing to do is look at sort of your academic family tree. So like, you know, who was my major professor? Who was his major professor? And now I've got students who are faculty, and they've advised students who are out, so you have this family tree in academia that's always fun to trace back.
Emily Davenport: Yeah. Jordan Powers: I love that. George Vellidis: And most of us in ag engineering can trace our academic ancestors to two or three people.
Simer Virk: Exactly. And I think about it, this, the circle, the Precision Ag circle, especially early on, like George said, almost I know when I got in 10 years ago, involved in precision ag, all the people who were doing precision ag was only ag engineers, you know, so we had a very small circle, everybody knew everybody all that. And we still do, you know, we interact a lot, everything. And we can almost trace up like you can
name a university in the US and we'll tell you who's doing precision ag work from the ag engineering side there, you know. Now we're starting to see a little bit more recently because it the field hasn't just stayed within ag engineering, and we have a lot of other specialty even at UGA, a colleague, you know, who came through the agronomy or other majors and they're precision ag people because the technology is not just for you know, for that discipline, it has expanded across multiple disciplines. So now that circle's even expanded, but we still have a pretty tight knit group of ag engineers that we can again, that if you can, like, ask me to trace the tree, I always think about, you know, like I said, John Fulton, his professor, all that and who's over here. It's pretty interesting sometimes. Jordan Powers: That's a whole other episode.
Emily Davenport: So when you go to conferences, it's like a family reunion. Simer Virk: Oh, yeah. Emily Davenport: You both have touched on this a little bit already. But can you tell us and our audience more about what
you're working on and how it's advancing the agriculture industry? Simer Virk: In my program, I guess, because of pretty heavy Extension appointment, my first priority is answering grower questions on lot of technology related. So a lot of times, it may be a very basic applied research, you know, does this technology help or not help doing its job what it's supposed to do, all that. And a lot of my program does evaluation on the new technologies or existing to help maybe provide some answers to the common questions they may have. And I have projects that are expanded across anywhere from precision soil sampling, to precision planting, or spraying, fertilizing, and then harvest technologies, and then using a little bit of remote sensing.
And the reason for that many kind again is because as an Extension person, I can't just work in one area. Sometimes I get a lot of questions that are areas I don't work in, but we're still you know, we either call our colleagues or another university or something like, hey, has anybody done this work in this area? You know, that's kind of I feel like my first responsibility so we do a lot of that in that aspect. But again, we're working a lot with, like George mentioned earlier, growers actually across the state with on-farm trials, research from anywhere, again, precision fertilization, planting, spraying, harvest, end-season data collection on crop management. And then we're also you know, fortunate to have a very good relationship with industry here, you know, partners, and we're all kind of working together on multiple projects in that aspect.
Jordan Powers: How about you, George? George Vellidis: My program is focusing on creating decision support tools to enable farmers to make decisions faster and better. And just to give you an example of why that's important, as Simer said, we work with, we do almost all our research on farm with farmers. And because that's the best way to test out any concept or technology. They're the people who will be
using it. They're the ones that are going to find the problems with our thought processes or the implementation. And so we can make a better product in the end. But I work with a farmer in southwest Georgia. He runs over 100 irrigation pivots. So in the
summertime, they're all running when it's hot, right? They're all running. And we are working with this farmer to enable him in his operation to make better decisions about when to irrigate and how much water to apply. And we were proposing to him to install soil moisture sensors in the field and every day, take a look at the sensors and and make a decision about whether to irrigate and he said all right, think about this. I have 100
pivots. If I take one minute to look at each sensor in each field, I'm looking at multiple hours per day just to make irrigation decisions. And I've got 10,000 acres to farm and I've got 100 other decisions to make. So my program is trying to
develop decision support tools that allow farmers to make better decisions. And this ranges all the way from irrigation scheduling tools to helping farmers detect diseases and other problems in their fields well in advance so they can make better management decisions in the end. Jordan Powers: It's always so amazing to hear and, coming from people who do not have agriculture backgrounds, the amount of involvement that our faculty, especially with an Extension and research has with directly benefiting the growers and producers of Georgia. I don't think that will ever stop
fascinating me. Emily Davenport: It's really cool. Jordan Powers: Just how wonderful it is that a grower can pick up a phone and call an expert and say, help me through this problem. And you all walk through it together. It's inspiring.
Emily Davenport: Yeah, it's really cool. George Vellidis: Well, you know, we are a land grant university. Sound Effect: [chime] Emily Davenport: A land grant university is an institution in the United States that provides research based programs and resources for residents within the state. There's at least one land grant institution in every state and territory of the United States, as well as the District of Columbia. Each institution receives federal benefits as set forth by the Morrill Acts of 1862, 1890, and 1994. Sound Effect: [chime] George Vellidis: And in the college of ag, we take that mission very, very seriously. Well, the citizens of the state
are our stakeholders, but specifically the farmers of the state are our more specific stakeholders. So it's our job to answer their questions and help them through this. Simer Virk: And I think other part of it is, and maybe University of Georgia is among the only few left that still has a very good true county-based Extension system, because we're all pretty well connected with our county agents, and they're very well connected with the growers. And I'm going to repeat one of our other specialists, Dr. Bob Kemerait, says that our agents and especially our growers, they trust our specialists. It's not common to find that type of relationship. But we're really well connected with both the growers and the industry. And I think that's one of the reasons, too, that
growers, you know, they can call us directly anytime and ask and it goes straight back to their farm, right, whatever we're doing, they trust us pretty well in those decisions. Jordan Powers: What an incredible resource for them to have. George Vellidis: And it works both ways. It's not just us helping growers. The growers help us on a regular basis. As an example, when we are writing research proposals and we want to emphasize that this problem we want to solve is important to our growers, we call up the growers just like they call us on their mobile phones to say, hey, Joe, would you please write a letter of support for this proposal that I want to submit for funding? And we get that letter of support without any questions asked. So, and that's just one example of how they in turn help us do our jobs.
Simer Virk: And the other part actually, George touched on, you can't do a lot of precision ag research on small plots, because our whole goal is trying to detect and address that spatial variability and all that, right? So guess where we do all our research? With growers on their farms. So it's like a give and take relationship, you know that we're pretty well connected. And that's what we're trying to do. I think there's some efforts even going in the college to increase our precision ag research capacity, space wise and equipment wise.
Jordan Powers: So a true symbiotic relationship there. Emily Davenport: Okay, this is a little bit of a U-turn weird question to ask, but here we go. When you're at not an IPA related event, and you tell people what you do for a living, what's the weirdest thing that someone has asked of you? George Vellidis: Well, definitely if we use the term IPA, you know what we're gonna get is like, you work on beer? So that's always been sort of a nice little comic relief to have associated with the acronym we've chosen for the work we do. But the thing that I always laugh at is, people don't understand much about peanuts. So if you're if you're not from Georgia and you're talking to someone about peanut, most often they ask you, well what kind of tree is that, that peanuts grow on? People do not know that peanuts grow underground. And I
always get a good laugh out of that and try to educate people that, hey, wait a minute. Peanuts are like potatoes, they grow underground, you have to dig them up, and then you have to harvest them. And it's not a simple process. Emily Davenport: Yeah, peanuts are an enigma, I tell you. Jordan Powers: Yeah, I didn't think about that. Because I guess I always knew they grew underground, even not being from Georgia, but I could see people getting confused on how the heck do they grow? George Vellidis: Because it's a nut, right? They know walnuts, they know almonds.
Emily Davenport: Yeah. George Vellidis: They know Jordan Powers: Pecans, everything that grows on trees. Emily Davenport: Yeah, those all grow on trees. George Vellidis: It's, if you don't know anything about peanuts, it's natural to make that assumption. Jordan Powers: What does the tree look like? Emily Davenport: Right? I get it, I get it. George Vellidis: And most people have never even seen peanuts in a shell. You know, the buy them in a can.
Emily Davenport: Ooh, true. Oh, my Okay. Jordan Powers: Hmm. Emily Davenport: But aren't they a legume? George Vellidis: They are a legume. Emily Davenport: And, but, so why do they grow underground? George Vellidis: You're welcome to ask a peanut physiologist.
Jordan Powers: Okay. Emily Davenport: Potato's not a legume. Jordan Powers: And for our next episode...
Emily Davenport: Uh-oh, okay. Jordan Powers: This is how the show is gonna continue, is just... Unknown: [cross-talk] Emily Davenport: Wild peanuts. George Vellidis: I can tell you why the peanut is found underground. But I cannot tell you why the peanut plant evolved to have its seed grow underground. Emily Davenport: Right, yeah, because beans don't grow on the ground.
Jordan Powers: Hmm. Emily Davenport: Okay. Anyway. Sound Effect: [chime] Jordan Powers: For our listeners who are interested in learning more about these tricky legumes, our team put together an amazing series of stories that covers all things peanut, from field to jar. We'll link the series in the show notes for you. Sound Effect: [chime] Jordan Powers: How about you, Simer? Simer Virk: I usually get a little, I'd say a little laugh out of it. But also get embarrassed because I have a lot of friends who, they're not ag related, they probably know very minimal, but most of them have gardens and plants and all that.
And if you know I mean, we talked about ag engineering, agronomy, pathology, entomology, there's so many fields, right? But for some reason, they expect me to know everything. Like they come with these questions about their plant trees, something and we sometimes see them at the gym. They're like, what do you think I should put on that weed? Or what, my bushes are not doing this. What should I spray? And I have this tree. And I'm usually like, I'm sorry, I have no clue. Because... Jordan Powers: You're not an arborist! Simer Virk: ...exactly. And I don't want to go into detail of explaining them like, hey, I only work in primarily row crops and I start collaborating with our, you know, forage people, you know, here, and hay production, other, and maybe other fields a little bit. You know, they expect me to like
know everything like, oh, you don't do that at work? You don't know? I'll be, like, no, I'm sorry. Emily Davenport: They're like, what do you do at work? You just sit there all day? Jordan Powers: They hear ag and they're like, everything, all things. Emily Davenport: Yes, you know all the things. Simer Virk: Yeah, well, that's why I like is they think because we work in ag, it's like we know almost about everything. Like I said, I laugh at it, but I'm also like, embarrassed, like, they would not think that I don't know what I'm doing. George Vellidis: He's right. This is very common. I get it
too and even my wife, she says, well, why don't you know this? You work in agriculture. It's like... Emily Davenport: The whole field that's your... Simer Virk: My parents have a big garden at our house. And my dad has a bunch of vegetables, all that and it's like, every week he's like, so what's happening to this plant? And I'm like, I don't know, I'll call George Vellidis: Kemerait. Simer Virk: Kemerait or Eric Prostko or someone and ask them and they're like, why don't you know? I'm like, I don't work on that! Jordan Powers: This is not what I do! But there's probably an Extension publication on it. Emily Davenport: Right! But at least you know the person that you can point them to.