Illinois Corn Fields are Out of This World

Lindsay Croke

May 29, 2024  |  Conservation

As Illinois corn farmers pursue healthier soil, increased productivity, and lower carbon intensity, scientists at NASA are using their out-of-this-world technology to provide important insights to power a cleaner, greener, and more secure food system.


IL Corn has been working with farmers to address issues around conservation, including water quality, soil health, and climate issues. Because of these really important issues, IL Corn created a program called Precision Conservation Management (PCM), which is essentially a very data-heavy look at what it means to adopt conservation practices on Illinois farms.


NASA Acres is NASA’s U.S.-focused agriculture and food security consortium of more than 25 field scientists and practitioners in a variety of ag sciences. A total of ten universities and two supporting private organizations round out the consortium.


NASA Acres and PCM have committed to working together to focus their efforts on helping farmers implement conservation practices on Illinois farms in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.


Because of the scale of agriculture today, farmers need bigger and better technologies that produce both “hyper-global and super-local” data to help power their decisions. NASA Acres supports large-scale data collection by bringing the value of Earth observation to farm decisions.



As an example, most Illinois farmers do soil tests on their farms, often in a grid pattern, which gives them information about the soil health, the nutrients within the soil and their amounts, the organic matter and organic activity in the soil, and other important metrics. While that data is extremely valuable and comprehensive as it explores nearly every square foot of the field, the technologies developed by NASA Acres will provide a more comprehensive look at regions and watersheds, producing insights about soil productivity, erodibility, moisture availability, and more using satellite images including hyperspectral imagery, advanced weather models, and other predictive models to create a more complete picture of the capabilities and challenges of Illinois’s agricultural working lands.


Because NASA has been capturing Earth data from space for over 50 years, there are a lot of historical reference points they can also make use of to understand changes in the landscape and the crops grown over time and help refine management decision options that farmers might consider as a result.


Even addressing the economic aspect of this conservation management equation, NASA Acres can apply their data to help understand which conservation practices are most effective at tackling specific natural resource concerns in different regions and why they might not work well in others. NASA’s data is used to help forecast weather and crop yield, making assumptions about the economic viability of conservation in different regions of the state very valuable.


As our nation becomes increasingly conservation-focused and the young people driving our economy make purchasing decisions based on sustainability metrics, understanding which management practices will maintain crop yields and  farmer incomes in the short term is just as important as growing foods using practices that customers feel good about because of their positive environmental outcomes, thus protecting the market for these crops in the long term.