A Glimpse into the Future of Agriculture

My friend’s yard has a creek in the back – a small one, gently trickling away bringing water from nowhere to nowhere. I went to look at it one bright afternoon in the spring. It was the time of year where everything shone, from the young green leaves to the moist ground, and the bright sunlight lit up the surface of the water, making the creek fit perfectly in the landscape. Only one thing was out of place: a small, gray clump of soap bubbles floating in an eddy in the middle of the stream. The suds looked completely alien to the tranquil environment and I found myself wishing they would just disappear.

This happens in the real world all the time, but instead of soap from a neighbor’s slip-’n’-slide it’s suffocatingly potent pesticides or fertilizers that can overturn entire ecosystems. In the name of thoroughness a farmer sprays an entire field with powerful chemicals; the soil absorbs what it needs and the rest washes out with the rain and into nearby rivers. How do you fix this problem, though? Treating fields isn’t exactly an optional step of the process of raising crops.

It turns out the answer lies in huge tanks, an array of agile spray nozzles, and cutting-edge GPS sensors. On a trip here at GSA, we stood next to a large instrument bearing all three parked in a small asphalt strip. A farmer would feed a prescription to the machine then drive it across a plot of land. Using a technique called real-time kinematics, the instrument determines its position within the centimeter and sprays from the nozzles when the prescription says to do so. This is precision agriculture, a field dedicated to treating only the parts of fields that need treatment. By turning its nozzles on and off, the contraption can spray some areas and leave others alone.

Technology isn’t perfect. Researchers booted the machine up for a test run, but in the middle of spraying the Virginia Tech logo on asphalt it sprung a small leak that rendered the drawing unrecognizable. Nonetheless, the trip provided a fascinating glimpse into the future of agriculture, an exciting marriage of technology and nature.  


The Sun. The Surf. The Sand. The Swim.

The Sun. The Surf. The Sand. The Swim. My excitement began to peak as we approached Claytor Lake and finally reached the beach. Dropping my bag and shoes, I ran straight into the water. I had just barely entered when the lifeguards frantically began blowing their whistles signaling that they had heard thunder. This means that we were all to stay out of the water until thirty minutes passed without any signs of thunder or lightning. I reluctantly left the warm water and planted myself on a spot in the sand with my friends. As my toes wiggled in the sand, I took a second to appreciate the gritty feeling beneath my feet. At that moment, I remember Dr. Tim Durham and his lesson on the different particles that make up soil: clay, silt, and sand. It was then that the realization struck me: I wasn’t just standing on a shore of a lake; I was standing in soil.

Soil serves as a catalyst for millions of tons of food to be produced every single year. Soil has grown the sustenance that we thoughtlessly consume daily. Soil that we as a society so often dismiss and incorrectly label as “dirt”. This “ecstatic skin of the Earth” as described by Dr. Durham on our very first week at Governor’s School is an unappreciated lifeline. This substance, composed of weathered rocks, serves as a medium for the recycling of raw material via the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, and phosphate cycle as it is a habitat for the microorganisms involved in these processes as well as a regulator for water supply and the atmosphere by holding liquid and sequestering carbon in addition to its value as a medium for plant growth and the associated environmental regulations. Soil is vital to the agricultural industry as a whole, but it is also undervalued.

*TWEEEEEET* The whistle sounded once again, and I ran back into the water.


GSA – A Great Experience

Being a real farmer. That’s what I thought Governor’s school for agriculture was going to be about. I was afraid it was going to be visiting farms at dawn and sitting in farming classes until dusk, but it has been so much more. 

I’ve learned about soil composition and texturing, economics, food security, food waste, and more about biodiesel than I can fit into this blog. Now as I’m writing this the night before my final presentation, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for my first few days here when I had no idea what was to come. Since then I have seen agricultural drones and even pet calves and foals, along with social experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life. We played volleyball and even Mario kart with a generously mailed Wii. I came here after over a year of quarantine, so meeting new people was something I hadn’t really thought about for a while. After a day here, though, I knew it was going to be a highlight of my high school career. 

I learned so much about college life, myself, and of course agriculture, which is so much more than just farming: it’s chemistry, biology, economics, and more. Every week we had a new class about a new aspect of agriculture, so finding out who the new professor was and what the new class would be always made Monday mornings a little easier. Overall, GSA was not at all what I expected, but it was a great experience that I will always remember.


Agriculture: A Subcategory in STEM

During the second week of GSA, we were introduced to several individuals who focused on a variety of topics related to agriculture which would have not been the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of the word, “agriculture”. We were sat down in the auditorium after we entered the Food and Life Sciences building, where we were then on a tour of the various facilities in the building including the mass spectrometers. While walking up the stairs, empty work spaces were visible with the approaching doors on the opposite side reading, “authorized personnel only”.

Entering one of the doors, we were introduced to where Virginia Tech professors and students study genetics and where an initial prototype of the COVID-19 virus was developed. As we were taught about the various works that were done in the lab, I could only stand in amazement by the sheer importance of the DNA and RNA sequencers, with the ability to identify key components of a subject’s genetic material which could be translated to see what genes contribute to what phenotypes. The other lab we visited was one filled with large machines and tubes running across the floor. The lab included three spectrometers and the professor identified that the tubes were needed in order to produce a vacuum for the vaporized substances being analyzed by the spectrometers. I have personally researched thoroughly in the past about spectrometers for a NASA research program that I participate in and with so many unknown substances in the universe, the use of spectrometers in regards to space is very prevalent. After walking down the same flight of stairs back into the auditorium, I realized firsthand that agriculture does not only include barn animals, farmers, and crops but is simply a subcategory in STEM.