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From the Dean College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Noteworthy Alumni

'Wolfie' maze demonstrates
power of farming by satellite

Photo courtesy of the Vollmer family

A Franklin County farm family’s attempts to adapt to changing economic realities have been a howling success.

Using state-of-the-art satellite farming technology, the Vollmer family, College alumni and fifth-generation farmers who cultivate 200 acres near the Tar River, cut a 4.5-acre maze in the shape of N.C. State University’s athletic mascot, the Strutting Wolf. Their goal: to show pride in their N.C. State ties and to attact visitors to their fall Harvest Festival.

The maze, designed with the help of university faculty, also demonstrates the power and precision that Global Positioning System technologies can bring to today’s farms.

As Dr. Gary Roberson, of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, says, “If we can map a wolf, we can map almost any feature a farmer sees in a field. And we can go back and find it again later.”

Russ Vollmer holds a 1991 agronomy degree from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His father, John, graduated from the College in 1966 with the same degree.

For help in creating the maze, the Vollmers turned to Roberson, an associate professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service specialist, and Cedric Jones, Franklin County Extension director.

Says Roberson, “You need three things for a project like this: a Global Positioning System receiver, a computer and software.” For this project, the Vollmers used a sub-meter differential GPS, or DGPS, receiver, which is “able to give a position accurate to within a meter or less in real time.”

The GPS is a network of satellites controlled by the U.S. Department of Defense to help ground-based units determine their location in latitude and longitude coordinates. The system allows farmers to tailor production decisions in their quest to achieve higher yields at lower costs.

The Vollmers’ experience creating the maze they call “Wolfie” demonstrates the precision GPS technology brings to farming.

Roberson says, “We scanned the wolf with an ordinary scanner and adjusted its size to the map we wanted to use. Next we registered the image, that is, picked three points of reference on the wolf — a toe, his tail and an ear — and determined their coordinates, latitude and longitude.

“We then loaded the registered image into the Geographic Information System, which records data in map form to be displayed and interpreted based on spatial distribution, along with a field map produced by taking our GPS receiver and computer and recording the border’s coordinates. With the wolf image overlaid in the computer map, we traced the wolf’s outline as an electronic drawing,” he explains.

“In the field we loaded the drawing and used DGPS to guide us to specific points on it. We set more than 100 numbered flags in order at these points around the perimeter.”

From there the Vollmers mowed around the outline as if it were a giant connect-the-dot drawing.

Russ Vollmer says, “It took us two days to carve it, and it wasn’t the easiest mowing job in the world. You can’t do it in straight lines, you have to cut the curves in the image. And there’s no way to get this size image in a field unless you position it just right.”

Which is what GPS technology is all about, Roberson says. Farmers can use the technology to record problem and object locations in their fields and to record crop yield data, field borders and boundaries. And GPS helps guide spreader trucks, sprayers and airborne crop dusters.

College researchers are exploring expanded GPS uses in yield monitoring, particularly for vegetables, cotton and peanuts, Roberson says.

Dr. Randy Weisz, Extension small grain specialist, and Dr. Ron Heiniger, Extension crop science specialist, use aerial infrared and color photographs to help determine the rates of nitrogen to apply in different areas of corn and wheat fields.

Heiniger also uses a thermal imaging device to measure moisture stress in a corn field.

“The thermal image shows the point or points in the field suffering stress,” he says. “All these remote sensing applications are combined with ground-based measurements using a GPS receiver to track location.”

Many farmers are exploring GPS and other precision-farming techniques to comply with changing environmental regulations and to increase their competitiveness in the marketplace. For the Vollmers, employing GPS technology is one in a series of steps they’ve taken over the years to diversify their farm so that their operation is not dependent on a single crop or enterprise.

“After I graduated, I didn’t have a strong feeling about coming back and farming tobacco. My dad and I had to make a decision,” says Russ Vollmer.

“We decided to lease out 80 acres we had in tobacco and began growing other crops. You’ve got to figure some way to make that money back and how the farm can evolve as a result of that.

“We have strawberries in six roadside stands that have done well for us,” he says. “And we book school classes for educational tours. We had 3,000 kids on the farm last fall. We grow peanut, corn and cotton patches for our school tour groups. Some children haven’t been to a farm and might not even know that peanuts grow underground.”

The family also puts in 200 acres of crops for rotations, such as pumpkins, gourds and small grains, as well as a pick-your-own section of cabbage, collards and broccoli, says Russ, who also sells crop insurance full time.

At their annual Harvest Festival last year, the simple geometric cornfield maze was a huge success.

They hit on “Wolfie” because, as Russ Vollmer says, the arrival of Chuck Amato as new N.C. State football coach was generating excitement among Wolfpack fans.

“We’re hoping we’ve stumbled onto something here,” says Russ of his family’s diversified farm. “We know we can do it. This year it’s Wolfie. Next year, who knows what?”

Art Latham


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