FARMINGTON — Navajo Agricultural Products Industry plans to acquire a drone aircraft as soon as next summer to monitor the farm's crops.
The unmanned aerial vehicle would be used to watch for changes in NAPI's crop fields and to spot problems early, said Tsosie Lewis, CEO of the Navajo farm enterprise. It would replace airplane flyovers conducted by a contractor for NAPI.
Lewis said he got the idea after attending a conference in Vermont for major farm operators.
“We can early on begin to see some problems that may exist because of lack of water, or salt conditions,” he said.
Drone flyovers could lead to improving irrigation systems or changing fertilizer recipes in response to crop conditions, he said.
NAPI currently conducts airplane flyovers at least monthly. Drones would be cheaper, Lewis said.
“It lessens the cost for us,” he said.
NAPI is a major producer of potatoes, alfalfa, pinto beans, corn and winter wheat on 72,000 acres of farmland south of Farmington. The tribe-owned enterprise is aggressively seeking to expand the market for its “Navajo Pride” products.
NAPI generates $400 million in annual revenue, and employs more than 400 people. Last week, NAPI hosted Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who toured a new flour mill.
NAPI officials are lobbying Congress to expand funding for the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, which they say would allow the farm to expand its value-added programs, including packaged potato and flour products, and a cattle feedlot.
Drones originated as a military technology — Presidents Obama and Bush have used the aircraft to kill terrorist suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan — but other industries have been quick to see civilian uses for the technology.
Drones are used by federal agencies to watch forest fires and hurricanes, and to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico.
Researchers at The Ohio State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are studying possible agricultural uses for drones.
Farmers are keenly interested in the technology, Lewis said.
“It's not uniformly used across the United States, but there are certain areas,” he said.
Dalene Hodnett, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, said she is not aware if any agricultural enterprise using drones in the state.
“That's really advanced technology,” she said. “It's a great way to monitor for drought or pest infestations when crops get too much water.”
NAPI may seek to acquire a drone to begin testing next summer, Lewis said. The aircraft is being considered as NAPI drafts its budget for next year.