Best of the West: The next generation of precision agriculture; an international geothermal agreement; a new state park in Kansas; and a “superbloom.” 

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting April 17, 2023. (Photos courtesy of Marcio Jose Sanchez, Business Wire, and AGAMI Photo Agency).

With planting season upon us, let’s take a look at how the agricultural sector is modernizing its operations to further limit its environmental impact, cut costs, and increase yields. 

By harnessing electric vehicle and robotics technology, driver-optional e-tractors have helped scale efficiency in all aspects of fieldwork—from seeding and weeding to harvest and equipment repair. 

With 12 million apples to pick each year and a shrinking labor market, Orchardists in Central Washington have even deployed 14-foot-tall robots with six mechanical arms that have suction cups at the end to gently remove apples with minimal damage. On-board stereo cameras act as the robot’s eyes, ensuring that it chooses only the ripest, healthiest apples. 

“People don’t build that much in factories anymore. Machines do, and people are there to supervise them,” said Mark Schwager, the co-founder and president of California-based Monarch Tractor, which recently debuted the first autonomous e-tractor. “That’s how farming should be.”

But if GPS-guided tractors and crop harvesting robots are leading the precision agriculture revolution of today, the next generation of farming is likely to be marked by unmanned drones with onboard sensors that can spot weeds and decide when and how much herbicide to spray to control their growth.

The benefits of such technologies in combination with artificial intelligence-enabled tools, which combine vast quantities of sensor and satellite data on weather, water, and soil conditions, can be presented on mobile phones and help small- and medium-sized farmers cut costs while boosting output, Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics at the Washington Agriculture Department, said.

For instance, AGCO Corporation announced a partnership with Bosch BASF Smart Farming to develop Smart Spraying technology, which will deliver optimal herbicide savings without compromising weed control and enable targeted spraying 24/7.

To help service the growing use of drones, Vertipads Inc. in North Dakota is working to create the first unmanned aerial systems agricultural infrastructure corridor composed of landing platforms for drones.

“A vertipad is a hybrid solution between a mini airport and a service station for drones. We want to create a grid of service stations for commercial drones to service the ag community in North Dakota,” said Sissel Thorstensen, founder and president of Vertipads Inc.

Researchers have even developed an electronic patch that can be applied to the leaves of plants to monitor crops for different pathogens -- such as viral and fungal infections -- and stresses such as drought or salinity. In testing, the researchers found the patch was able to detect a viral infection in tomatoes more than a week before growers would be able to detect any visible symptoms of disease.

Global Geothermal: At a meeting of the Group of Seven energy and environment ministers in the northern city of Hokkaido, Japan. The U.S. and Japan agreed to cooperate on developing geothermal energy together. The pact, signed by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Japan's Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Yasutoshi Nishimura, says that geothermal energy is recognized as a “renewable energy technology that the United States and Japan can work together to advance.” It calls for collaboration in research and development and exchange of information and in pursuing geothermal projects in the U.S., Japan, and other countries. 

The Sunflower State’s New State Park: Kansas Governor Laura Kelly signed House Bill 2039, which establishes Lehigh Portland Trails as the Sunflower State’s 28th state park. Located on 360 acres, the park is built on the site of a former cement plant and quarry along the banks of Elm Creek in Iola. As part of the legislation, disabled veterans are permanently provided with free hunting and fishing licenses.

“Establishing the Lehigh Portland Trails as our state’s 28th state park will bring more tourism to Allen County and provide another place for families to enjoy the outdoors,” Governor Laura Kelly, said. “As a previous Executive Director of the Kansas Recreation and Park Association, I know firsthand how important our parks are to our communities and our economy. This bill also helps our veterans overcome financial barriers to participate in all the good our parks have to offer.” 

A Revived Seabird Sanctuary: Once a sanctuary for seabirds, the unique ecosystem of Lehua Island, a small, crescent-shaped volcanic cone 35 kilometers west of Kaua‘i, Hawai'i, was decimated by invasive rats and rabbits. Over the past 20 years, Hawai‘i’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife has led a campaign of research, hunting, and aerial poisoning to drive off the rabbits and rats. As a result of this work, the number of ‘ā (the Hawaiian name for red-footed boobies) and other species that survived the invaders are increasing in the state sanctuary, which is uninhabited by people and closed to most visitors. Now their focus is on bringing back the seabirds that have long since abandoned the island, including the critically endangered ʻuaʻu (Hawaiian petrel), ‘ewa‘ewa (sooty tern), and hinaokū (blue-gray noddy).

Superbloom: From San Francisco down to the Mexican border and across Arizona, an unusually wet winter has helped produce a "superbloom," that can be seen from space. Botanists say wildflowers are expected to be blooming well into May, with some areas just starting. "One of the things unique about this year is how incredibly widespread it is," said Naomi Fraga, director of conservation programs at the California Botanic Garden. "It's pretty spectacular."

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