Best of the West: States ramp up precision agriculture projects; electric planes planned for cargo delivery; Maui nears 100% renewable energy; Alaskan Native artist designs stamp

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting August 2, 2021. (Photos courtesy of Dataloop)

The extreme drought encompassing most of the West has underscored the value of precision agriculture. The process uses real-time data points gathered from web-enabled devices to help farmers pinpoint the best way to prepare the soil, plant seeds, water, fertilize and ultimately harvest. Though many farmers were wary of the technology when it was introduced about a decade ago, early adopters have proven just how effective it can be. Now, western states are looking to aggressively advance these tactics.    

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. National Science Foundation recently announced a $40 million investment to develop a multi-institutional research institute to study the integration of artificial intelligence with agriculture operations. “AI has a serious potential to make groundbreaking discoveries and transform our decision-making capabilities,” said Ananth Kalyanaraman, the lead principal investigator for the Institute at Washington State University, where the facility will be based. Oregon State University; University of California Merced; Heritage University; Wenatchee Valley College; and Kansas State University will also be involved.  

The goal is to train the next generation of farmers in precision agriculture technology and develop and rigorously test new equipment. For example, the Grand Farm Research and Education Initiative recently teamed up with Trilogy Networks in North Dakota to launch an all-in-one platform to seamlessly integrate precision agriculture equipment like sensors and autonomous machines. Mobile Recon Systems LLC, another ag-tech start-up in North Dakota, is creating heavy-lift drones capable of seeding entire fields’ cover crops. These start-ups are beginning to see major investments

The new technology has some rethinking exactly what a farm is. Kalera, which operates a 77,000-square-foot indoor hydroponics farm south of Atlanta, can produce more than 10 million heads of lettuce a year. It’s now opening similar farms in Colorado, Washington and Hawaii. “We’ve perfected mother nature indoors,” Daniel Malechuk, the chief executive of Kalera, said. “We can grow in the Antarctic. We can be on an island. We can be on the moon or in the space station.”

Though traditional farmers say the benefits of natural soil and sunlight can never be replaced, Colorado Mesa University and Western Colorado Community College developed a partnership with Violet Gro, a UV disinfection company, to study and improve the science behind its LED grow lights. The partnership will explore the impact of lighting on plant yields, color, appearance, nutrition and even flavor. 

The idea of precision agriculture has become so universal in recent years it’s even been included in popular farming video games

ELECTRIC PACKAGE DELIVERY: Logistics provider DHL Express is adding electric cargo planes to its fleet, becoming the first customer for Eviation, a Seattle-based electric aviation company. The plane, named Alice, can be configured for cargo or passengers and requires 30 minutes or less to charge per flight hour with a maximum range of about 500 miles. DHL said it expects to begin using the plane for deliveries as soon as 2024.  

HISTORIC STAMP: The first postage stamp ever designed by a Native Alaskan Lingít was recently released by the U.S. Postal Service. Designed by Rico Lanáat’ Worl, the picture depicts a Lingít story of creation, in which a raven transforms into a human so it can steal the sun, stars and moon and give the world light. “I felt like it was an important story that gives a gateway for people to learn about Tlingit culture,” said. Though there’s no Lingít word for “postage stamp,” Worl suggested it could be x’úx’ daakax’úx’u kalis’éex’u x’úx’, which translates to ‘paper around a paper, sticky paper.’

RENEWABLE PLANNING: With plans to complete 175 MW of new solar-storage hybrid power plants over the next three years Maui is set to become one of the first interconnected electric transmission systems powered by 100% renewable energy anywhere in the world. Of course, being the first comes with an array of challenges. To help smooth this transition, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is using its MIDAS (the Multi-Timescale Integrated Dynamic and Scheduling model) to provide grid operators with more advanced operational intelligence and ensure demand is always met.  

MUDSLIDE MAYHEM: Check out the staggering drone footage from the Colorado Department of Transportation showing the destruction that a recent massive mudslide caused as it tore down the mountainside and onto I-70 in Glenwood Canyon in Colorado. The slide is the latest in a series caused by a lack of vegetation left on the steep hillside following the Grizzly Creek Fire of 2020. Officials with the state’s Department of Transportation shut down the major thoroughfare in the final days of July and say it will be many days, if not weeks, before a full reopening. It could be as long the start of ski season in November.   

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