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USDA Using Satellites to Monitor Farmers
Satellites have monitored crop conditions around the world for decades, helping traders predict futures prices in commodities markets and governments anticipate crop shortages.
But those satellite images are now increasingly turning up in courtrooms across the nation as the Agriculture Department's Risk Management Agency cracks down on farmers involved in crop insurance fraud.
The Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency, which helps farmers get loans and payments from a number of its programs, also uses satellite imaging to monitor compliance.
Across government and private industry alike, satellite imaging technology is being used in water rights litigation and in prosecution of environmental cases ranging from a hog confinement facility's violations of waste discharge regulations to injury damage lawsuits stemming from herbicide applications. The technology is also used to monitor the forestry and mining industries.
"A lot of farmers would be shocked at the detail you can tell. What it does is keep honest folks honest," said G.A. "Art" Barnaby Jr., an agricultural economist at Kansas State University.
Satellite technology, which takes images at roughly eight-day intervals, can be used to monitor when farmers plant their acreage, how they irrigate them and what crops they grow. If anomalies are found in a farm's insurance claim, investigators can search satellite photos dating back years to determine cropping practices on individual fields.
What's catching the attention of Barnaby and others is a spate of recent cases involving the use of satellite imaging to prosecute farmers. The largest so far has been a North Carolina case in which a couple faked weather damage to their crops by having workers throw ice cubes onto a tomato field and then beat the plants.
In September, Robert Warren was sentenced to six years and four months in prison, while his wife, Viki, was sentenced to five years and five months. They were also ordered to forfeit $7.3 million and pay $9.15 million in restitution.
The Warrens and at least three other defendants pleaded guilty. But in one related trial that went to a jury, prosecutors used satellite images and testimony from a satellite image analyst to present their case.
"It was impressive to the jury to have this presentation about this eye in the sky and satellite imagery and a trained expert," said Richard Edwards, the assistant U.S. Attorney in North Carolina who prosecuted the case. "In our case it did not make the case, but it sure helped and strengthened and improved the case."
The Risk Management Agency is involved in three other multimillion-dollar crop insurance fraud cases that have yet to be filed that will rival the Warren case in scope, said Michael Hand, RMA's deputy administrator for compliance.
While fewer than 100 cases have been prosecuted using satellite imaging since the RMA started its crackdown in 2001, data mining - coupled with satellite imaging - pinpoints about 1,500 farms annually that are put on a watch list for possible crop fraud, Hand said. Ground inspections are done on the suspect farms throughout the growing season.
The agency says its spot checklist generated by the satellite data has saved taxpayers between $71 million and $110 million a year in fraudulent crop insurance claims since 2001.
The agency stepped up its enforcement after the Agriculture Risk Protection Act of 2000 mandated it use data mining to ferret out false claims, Hand said. Every year, it ships claims data to the Center for Agriculture Excellence at Tarleton State University in Stephensville, Texas, where analysts look for anomalies in claims. They generate a list of claims for further investigation, with satellite imaging pulled on the most egregious cases.
Just as U.S. satellites kept track of things like the wheat harvest in the former Soviet Union, other countries have also launched satellites to monitor American crops. Germany, France and others have satellites monitoring crop conditions, and many other private firms sell those images in the U.S.
"Everybody spies on everybody. I was stunned to hear that myself," Edwards said. "Someday, I may have to rely on a French satellite to convict an American citizen."
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