Commentary: Will activists’ drones spy on farms?

(Photo by L. Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois)

This winter and spring, I’ve been following the videos and online information of a northern Indiana farmer, Brian Scott, who is using a new, small unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, for tasks on his farm.

First, there was the video the drone, mounted with a GoPro camera, shot over remote river bottom field on his farm. He checked the footage to see if there was debris in the field from a spring flood, saving him time on the four-wheeler to get across the acreage himself.

Then, on April 15, he used the drone for aerial crop scouting his winter wheat (scroll down to watch this video). He’s used the camera to fly over his waterways looking for winter sinkholes (and found an inlet covered with cornstalks that needs to be cleared).

It’s been fascinating to see a real farmer using the new technology on a real farm.

UAVs with multi-spectral, or thermal, cameras (or even cameras modified with a cheap piece of blue plastic) can survey crops and spot crop stress or nutrition problems, quicker than an on-foot sample. The aerial footage is also helping farmers identify areas where stands are uneven, or how topography affects yields. There are myriad other uses.

The FAA is expected to propose rules for drones weighing 55 pounds or less, which should cover most farm uses, by next year, and then — look out! One Denver-based company that sells drones said it is already on pace this year for triple-digit growth in drone sales.

While the technology will be beneficial to many, I saw a proposed use of a drone today that was bone-chilling.

A Washington-based journalist/activist has raised more than $31,000 from 509 backers in an online Kickstarter crowdsourcing, or investment, drive. His project? He wants to use drones to take aerial photographs of “factory farms,” or as he puts it, “to expose what some corporations want to keep hidden.”

I can see it now: An uproar over footage of a beef cow who isolates herself out on pasture before giving birth (because clearly she’s in distress and some callous farmer is ignoring her plight).

Will Potter, who focuses on animal rights and environmental issues in his social reporting, is an opponent of the “ag gag” laws, or proposals that would criminalize taking photos or videos of a farm without permission, among other things. And, according to the International Business Times, Potter is a plaintiff challenging the Idaho ag gag law in federal court.

The Times reports the use of drones to photograph farms is already being used in Australia by the animal rights group Animal Liberation.

Potter is mindful of trespass laws, and hopes to raise enough to get beefier UAV models and equipment that could monitor farms at a distance from public property.

“Undercover investigators shed light on practices that most Americans would not otherwise witness,” he wrote recently on Huffington Post.

“Factory farms clearly have something to hide,” Potter writes, and says agriculture depends on secrecy and ignorance.

Agriculture is simply protecting profits, he says, when we, as an industry, denounce the work of activist saboteurs.

What Potter and his ilk fail to realize is that not every large farm, or even every farm that’s incorporated as a business, is a faceless corporation that’s money-hungry and uncaring about how it treats animals.

Here’s the thing: I have yet to meet a farmer who thinks it’s OK to mistreat his livestock.

I have yet to meet a farmer who hasn’t postponed buying something for his home because he puts the money back into the farm instead.

And I have yet to meet a farmer who doesn’t wish his consumers and neighbors had more ag education and awareness.

Rich corporations shrouded in secrecy? Not the farms I know.

Still, Potter hasn’t had any trouble raising his seed money. As of June 16, he had passed his $30,000 goal, and the campaign continues through July 9.

To my nonfarm readers, please take the time to talk to a real farmer, not an activist, when it comes to learning about agriculture. If you don’t know one or know how to find one, call me. I’ll hook you up.

And to my farm readers, when will you realize that sharing information about your farm is as important as any other farm task you have today? Don’t you want people to learn from you, rather than from misleading pictures from an eye in the sky?

By Susan Crowell


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