On the Eastern Shore of Virginia, drones hover in the sky and data is analyzed on the ground to provide growers with tools to tackle the pests that wreak havoc on their crops and manage the nutrients that help them thrive.

Students and faculty at the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center, situated on a 220-acre farm in Painter, Virginia, use advanced technologies to improve the practices of large- and small-scale farming operations, including the ongoing challenges of water and pest management.

Founded in 1956, the Eastern Shore facility has evolved into a state-of-the-art station, where researchers using groundbreaking drone and data analytic applications are making their mark in precision agriculture to ensure the Eastern Shore remains a leader in commercial agriculture production.

Managing water levels from 'sky-level'

A dry summer sends the Eastern Shore into a drought. Crops are stressed and in desperate need of water.

Exactly how much water does the farmer need to deliver? What water requirements rest below?

Emmanuel Torres Quezada is trying to answer that question from above.

Quezada is a horticultural cropping systems Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist and an assistant professor of horticulture stationed at the Eastern Shore facility. Most of his research is focused on innovative cultural practices, such as irrigation management. During his first few years at the center, he will work to identify crop water requirements in the Eastern Shore.

Adhering to his innovative approach, he is using drones as his "eyes" in the sky to assist in this research.

One of the technologies the researchers employ is remote sensing, meaning using multispectral cameras to identify crop stress. From the indexes collected from cameras mounted on drones, the researchers can make decisions about the crops below.

"An exciting part of this research is that we can take the data that we generate from the cameras and try to correspond that data to other factors, one of them being irrigation," Quezada says. "This results in different methods that we can use to estimate the water requirement for different plants using cameras instead of having to measure the water in the soil or measuring the water on the plants."

Over time, the ultimate goal is to deliver this technology to growers, Quezada says.

"I want to make the production systems that we have in place more accessible and efficient for growers in the sense of an increase in yields and a decrease in costs," he says.

Battling pests and tracking their paths

An Eastern Shore farmer inspects a hard-labored cornfield and finds the crop overcome with cutworms, a common corn pest. An obvious approach to ridding the rows of bugs is pesticides.

However, there are other options to consider.

These alternative practices are what Lorena Lopez, an entomologist and postdoctoral student at the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center, is currently exploring.

Lopez specializes in integrated pest management, a practice known as IPM.

"IPM is using an ecologically-based approach to manage pests," Lopez says. "It includes different combinations of pest management techniques, such as cultural practices, biological control, habitat manipulation and the use of chemicals."

Lopez tests this approach on vegetables and small fruits, such as strawberries and blueberries.

"What I've done is evaluate these practices to make the cropping system more resilient, more sustainable, and to also reduce the use of pesticides," Lopez says. "We're not necessarily trying to eliminate the use of pesticides, but we are trying to make their use more compatible with other types of pest management."

More recently, Lopez is using data analytics and machine learning to study and predict the spatial (space) and temporal (time) distribution patterns of pests and their natural enemies, arthropods that feed on parasitoid wasps, predatory insects, predatory mites, spiders and other insects.

"I've released predatory mites, for example, on squash plants, and then I collect samples in the field," Lopez said. "After I sample them, I make maps that show where these pests and natural enemies are distributed in the area of the crop and how they relate."

The use of predatory mites as biological control agents in pest management programs has become a common practice in specialty crops in the last few decades to suppress small and soft-bodied insect and mite pests. This technique is very common in some fruit and vegetable crops, as well as some ornamental crops.

From this data, Lopez hopes she and eventually farmers will be able to better predict the number of pests and natural enemies at different locations to target, control and prevent them.

The challenges and rewards of research

Researchers at the Agricultural Research and Extension Centers are constantly considering the needs of farmers in their region.

Last summer, Lopez worked on a distribution map of spider mites in tomato crops, a common commodity of Eastern Shore farms.

"It's exciting to let the farmers know that we have this technology," Lopez says. "We can see where the spider mites go, where they are coming from and how they are going to move around over time. But how can I make these models useful for growers? I can produce these models, but how can I provide them this tool and make it easy for them to use in their everyday lives? It's a very challenging and complicated concept – one that is hard to move from point 'A' to point 'B.' But it's also very rewarding to know that eventually we're going to find a way."

Stakeholders' feedback is also valuable, Quezada says.

"That's the part of this job that is very rewarding to me," Quezada says. "You get a grower that says, 'This is a great idea. Let me use it.'"

Solving these complex problems is a never-ending cycle, Lopez and Quezada agree, but so is the learning component.

"We learn something new every day, whether it's from other researchers, growers, or any line of information that comes in," Quezada says. "That keeps things moving and challenging."

Aside from their passion for research and the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Lopez and Quezada also share an affinity for one another – the talented pair of researchers recently married.