Interactive online mapping tool helps PA farmers

PA barn

Most of us are only a few generations removed from the farm. And even if that’s not the case, most of us have seen life on the farm portrayed as a daily rhythm of repetitive chores timed to nearly coincide with sunrise and sunset. That’s an early start, and a late end, to each day. When farmers keep livestock, this portrayal is not far off, but it’s only part of the picture.

In my case, my mother’s parents were dairy farmers in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, a mountainous area 30 miles northeast of Scranton. Much of the land there is too steep for any use besides pasture, so dairy farming was a common choice. The Dairymen’s League, a cooperative which was active in the area in the early part of the 20th century, controlled most of the milk sold in New York City. In other words, with membership in this co-op came a guaranteed market, and a guaranteed price. My grandfather drove a truck which collected milk for such a co-op, while my grandmother and her parents ran the farm.

However, this area is prone to erosion and runoff because of the topography, and this is an even more sensitive issue because it lies in the Susquehanna River basin. At 464 miles long, the Susquehanna is the longest river draining into the Atlantic Ocean in the U.S. What if, in addition to milking cows every day, you had to submit a digital map to move manure around the farm, or to spread it on fields over at your neighbor’s place? Phosphorous, nitrogen, sediment, fertilizers and pesticides are all farm substances which can pollute waterways, and farmers are required to mitigate such risk. Nutrient balance sheets, nutrient management plans, and soil erosion and sedimentation plans are all required submissions to the government. Farmers can hand draw maps, or hire a consultant to do them, but the cost of mapping could add up to millions for all farmers across the state combined.

Pennsylvania has created a resource to help farmers with these tasks. PAOneStop is an interactive online mapping tool created by Rick Day, associate professor of soil science and environmental information systems at Penn State. It imports required aerial photography, topographic images and soil information from state and federal databases. It also calculates field acreage and allows farmers to add field boundaries and mark streams, ponds, wells, and sinkholes.

“We’re like any other family dairy farm: the day’s as full as you can make it,” Pennsylvania dairy farmer Dean Patches told PSU’s website. “PAOneStop is nice because it gives me a complete set of maps and saves me the effort of having to use another computer program or flip back and forth among multiple sets of data — it’s been a real help.”

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