Wisconsin startup uses drones to survey farmland

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A man stands in the middle of a large field, staring up at the sky. He wears a blue polo T-shirt, blue jeans, and sports a thick beard. A look of satisfaction gleams in his eyes as he spots his three-foot drone in flight. Eyes fixed to the sky, the man walks back to his van and pulls out a laptop to track the drone’s movements.

The man’s name is Joe Paul. He’s using his drone to survey farmland for a client. Paul runs a new start-up company called FlightSight, a company that uses drones to survey farmland. Paul has a background in agriculture and aviation, skills he used to launch his new company.

The farm he’s flying over is owned by Megan and Eric Wallendals. It’s late in the day on a June afternoon, and the sky is sunny. Paul has programmed the flight pattern of the drone from the laptop in his van. It’s scheduled to make a trip around the farm, take photos, and lands.

After the drones lands, he retrieves the images taken from high above. He pours over the different image files with the Wallendals. They talk about the crops, the levels of fertilizer and nutrients in the soil, and the level of development needed in their field. With the state-of-the art drone imagery, Paul has infused the age of practices of farming and agriculture with the latest technology of drones and computer imagery.

The Wallendals

Megan and Eric Wallendal left their respective careers in Philadelphia to start a farm in Wisconsin. They grow a number of vegetables including corn, pumpkins, and rye. Although they might have left the big city behind for a life on the farm, they didn’t leave technology aside. In fact, the 30 year old Megan Wallendal is enthusiastic about the opportunities technology might offer them in the future. She said: “It’s so hard to picture what kind of technology will be available. … I’m hoping when we have kids, maybe they’ll be coming back from a career to the farm and adding even more technology.”

FlightSight’s Drone Business

Joe Paul was raised on a farm in New Lisbon. The city rests in Juneau County. About 2,500 residents reside in New Lisbon. As a young man, Paul left the small town to make his way in the world as an aviator and flight instructor. He worked in places like Michigan, San Diego, and Arizona. He returned from his time abroad to the family farm five years ago. In August of 2016, the family sold the farm, after which Paul launched his startup company FlightSight, a way to combine his love of flying with his passion for farming.

Paul is 27 years of age. This puts him into the category of young professionals, a demographic largely missing in Wisconsin. “Being in the country and seeing the food being produced,” Paul says, “there’s a real satisfaction with growing a good crop.” He continued: “We no longer own a farm, but to be able to be in the business and involved in agriculture, it feels good.”

Wisconsin Needs Young People

Wisconsin state agencies are desperate for a way to attract young people into the agricultural industry. Industry leaders are hoping that jobs in technology, science, and engineering will open up around the agricultural industry, bringing more people like Joe Paul back to Wisconsin. Such jobs include everything from breeding animals to agronomy. Accounting, sales, and marketing jobs are also in dire need of young people.

Wisconsin has seen a dramatic drop in the number of farms in the state recently. In 2015, Wisconsin had as many as 68,900 farms. Over a hundred farms disappeared in that year alone. In comparison to 2005, Wisconsin lost more than 7,600 farms, the state reports.

Farming is expensive. Farmers have to buy tons of equipment, rent land, purchase animals, and keep up with the prices of seeds, fertilizer, and fuel.
Likewise, fewer young people grow up on a family farm, or feel connected to a farm, making situations like Paul’s rarer and rarer.

Many young people might find life on a farm unsettling. It takes long draining hours to grow crops, commodities rise and fall at the whim of the markets, and weather can devastate an entire season’s worth of work.

New Programs aim to Recruit Young People to Wisconsin

Recognizing the need for young people, the state of Wisconsin has put a number of different programs into effect to attract younger crowds to the state. One program puts younger farmers in touch with experienced older farmers, giving them an older mentor to help them into the business. A spring bill on its way to the state legislature looks to add a Veteran Farmer Assistance Outreach Program, aimed to recruit US military veterans into the agricultural business. Lawmakers hope to convince young soldiers to turn their swords into plowshares, providing a future for Wisconsin farming.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation offers a program aimed at farmers between the ages of 18 and 35, linking them together using a social networking service. The program is called The Young Farmer and Agriculturist program. It’s hosted 27 social networking events already this year, and 13 educational events.

Wendy Kannel, the director of leadership and training at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation stated: “We have a lot of jobs that go unfilled every year.” She continued: “The opportunities in agriculture are endless and if you want a job in agriculture, there’s a job for you.” Kannel and her associates are optimistic about the future of Wisconsin farming. She said: “We are working on promoting everything that is awesome about working in agriculture.” Many people, she said, tend to associate agriculture with farming. “That’s definitely not the case,” she said, “Farmers are a very important part of agriculture, but we need thousands of people to support farmers.” She thinks that many people equivocate agriculture with farming. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that agriculture equals farming — that to be in agriculture you have to be a farmer.” As Joe Paul’s drone business shows, you don’t have to be a farmer to be part of the agricultural business.
With young farmers like Eric and Megan, and ambitious entrepreneurs like Joe Paul, Wisconsin farming might have a future after all.

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