TULARE — The air outside smelled of barbecue smoke and exhaust fumes Tuesday during the opening day of the World Ag Expo, but inside the Heritage Complex banquet hall, a look into the future of agriculture was taking place.
In keeping with the expo’s theme, “Harvesting Technology,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine visited the International Agri-Center in Tulare and spoke about how technology originally developed for space exploration is now being repurposed and used to improve numerous aspects of agriculture around the world.
Though NASA makes up only a fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget, Bridenstine said the agency is responsible for a lot of the technology we use today, from GPS to weather satellites.
“People don’t realize how important space is to their lives,” he said. “Space has elevated the lives of everybody in the United States of America, and in fact, all across the world.”
Although he’s not from this state, Bridenstine actually spent some time as a Navy pilot in California, including at Naval Air Station Lemoore, so he said he is familiar with the agricultural issues here.
One of the biggest challenges is the competition for water under growing demand, he said. He said it’s becoming more and more difficult to manage this precious and scarce resource in a responsible way.
Currently, Bridenstine said NASA has unique technology it is sharing with the California Department of Water Resources that can be used to measure the Sierra Nevada snowpack and determine how fast it is melting.
He said LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology — originally used to map the moon and Mars — is used to map the mountains before and after snow has fallen to get a water equivalent measurement, while spectrometry is used to calculate how fast the water is melting.
The ultimate objective is to make sure no water is being wasted, Bridenstine said.
NASA is also helping specific farms in the state by measuring evapotranspiration, which is when water is transferred from land to the atmosphere when it is evaporated from soil or transpired from plants.
The measurement, also taken with LIDAR, can be used to calculate precise irrigation needs of plants and crops. Bridenstine said this pilot program, in partnership with the University of California Cooperative Extension and other agencies, is only being used in California.
So far, Bridenstine said results have shown 20 percent reduction in water use and 50 percent reduction in nitrate leeching, sustaining crop yields and quality for less water. He said NASA wants to improve the technology and expand to broader regions.
Bridenstine also talked about GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) data being used to measure the amount of water in soil and in the aquifer. He said the data can be used to predict drought, which can be beneficial to policy makers.
“When there are people that need support we need to get it to them ahead of time, not afterwards,” Bridenstine said.
Even though NASA technology wasn’t originally created to benefit agriculture, it has been able to and Bridenstine said ultimately, the goal is to figure out how to grow food, save lives, feed more people around the world and conserve resources.
“Through partnerships with universities and states we’re actually able to make a difference and we want to continue doing that,” Bridenstine said. “As the NASA Administrator, I’ll be doing that as much as I can, so that every piece of technology we develop ultimately gets fed into its best uses for all of humanity.”