Benjamin Yeh ’22 is a Statistics major with a minor in Computer Science and Celia Walden ’22 is a Biometry and Statistics major.
What do they have in common? Having no prior experience with agriculture, Yeh and Walden spent the last year working with the Cornell Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP) where they dove into the rapidly expanding field of digital agriculture. Both students also graduate from Cornell this May!
Here, they share their experiences and reflections.
What is digital agriculture?
Yeh: Digital agriculture focuses on interdisciplinary insights from statistics, computer science, crop and soil science, animal science, and economics. It draws from the technological aspects of computer science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to help make farming more economically and environmentally sustainable over time.
How did you get involved with Cornell’s Nutrient Management Spear Program?
Walden: I'm from Long Island, so I didn’t grow up around agriculture, but I’ve always held an interest in gardening and sustainability. I discovered NMSP my sophomore year through an email listserv and applied for an open research position. I first worked with another honors student, Ben Lehman, and when COVID hit and fieldwork opportunities were limited, I switched over to working with Jason Cho, a graduate student working with farmer yield data, researching year-to-year variability in corn yields. After Jason graduated in 2021, I continued working with Data Analyst, Manuel Marcaida, on the evaluation of yield stability zones using various soil sampling approaches.
Yeh: It happened by chance! I grew up in the suburbs outside of NYC and had never considered doing anything remotely related to agriculture. But one day, I found a research assistant position being advertised via the Statistics department and I reached out. I began working on a project to clean up yield monitor data for corn silage and grain with Manuel Marcaida, and then joined the team of postdoctoral researcher Sunoj Shajahan, using machine learning to estimate yield from imagery. I became really interested in the impact that digital agriculture could have on society.
What project did you work on?
Walden: I just wrapped up my senior thesis project where I explored drivers of yield in corn fields. I looked at soil and landscape data to try to identify the most important factors in determining yield level. The goal was to figure out the main drivers of yield so that farmers can get insights as to how to manage their fields more efficiently, and therefore become more profitable and sustainable. In the future, I think it would be interesting to look at more factors that have the potential to affect yield, such as weather, microbial biomass, and nitrogen.
Yeh: Last spring, I started data cleaning for Manuel Marcaida, then in the summer I moved on to a new project working with drone images and corn yield prediction. The goal was to be able to make yield predictions, so that nitrogen fertilization management decisions can be improved. Farmers want to be strategic about when and where they apply nitrogen fertilizer, especially because over-application is expensive and can have tremendous environmental impacts. That's where digital agriculture comes in, knowing how and where to apply fertilizer using monitor systems and remote sensing.
How do you hope your project will impact farmers?
Walden: We hope to tell farmers which factors drive yields so that they can determine how they should manage their fields in the future. By knowing what the important factors are, a farmer can adjust management practices and focus on certain factors when carrying out on-farm research.
Yeh: I would love to see the NMSP team create a web application where farmers could upload drone images of their farm fields throughout their growing season, and then receive a predicted yield map. From there, they could derive their own decisions about where to place nitrogen fertilizer. It is my hope that the research Sunoj and I are working on are the first steps in building such a system.
What are some challenges that digital agriculture faces and what kind of future do you envision for this field?
Walden: There are many challenges that digital agriculture faces. One is that underdeveloped countries lack access to it. Small-scale farmers don’t have access to common technologies like yield monitors and drones due to high costs.
Another issue is that it is difficult for farmers to give their data to bigger companies. Many farmers would like to have their data analyzed, but don’t want it to be public.
As digital agriculture moves towards artificial intelligence and machine learning, there must be processes in place to maintain ethical analysis.
Yeh: Ultimately, what needs to be better addressed by large farming companies are the challenges facing small-scale farmers, especially in developing countries where resources and existing solutions are not available or practical.
By 2050, there will be another 2 billion people added to this planet. But by 2030, the actual agricultural labor force is only projected to grow by 1%.
We’re facing an almost insurmountable problem where we have to feed an additional 2 billion people and our agricultural systems are going to be under immense pressure. Digital Agriculture is going to have a really big hand in meeting this demand in the next 30 years and accommodating challenges currently faced.
Where are you headed after graduation?
Walden: I am still figuring out my post-grad plans, but as of now I will be spending the summer traveling and taking time off. I am currently looking for jobs and might pursue a graduate degree sometime in the future. I hope to work in the agriculture industry, as this experience has given me a passion for supporting farmers and food production.
Yeh: Back to NMSP to finish publishing our work, and then hopefully somewhere in the AgTech field!
Daniella Garcia Almeida ’25 is a physics major in the College of Arts and Sciences and a student writer for Cornell CALS Department of Animal Science.
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