A prized Virginia crop goes hi-tech
By Amy Loeffler
Maria Balota is a curator of sorts.
The associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science is responsible for ensuring the perpetuity of one of the commonwealth’s most quintessential commodities: the peanut.
Virginia peanuts are particularly prized for their size, intense taste, and texture. The commonwealth had a record-breaking year in 2014, producing yields of 4,350 pounds per acre according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One thing that is helping Virginia peanut farmers to be more prolific than ever is the advent of drone technology, which Balota uses at the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Balota tests peanut cultivars for heat and drought tolerance to study plant behavior during short-term droughts.
“We can collect data so much more efficiently and quickly now,” said Balota. “That helps enormously when attempting to measure the stress levels of plants.”
Unlike collecting data on the ground by hand using a thermometer, drones allow Balota the ability to take measurements of plots simultaneously, which excludes errors due to changes in weather.
“Measuring one plot at a time takes a lot of work, so you can imagine the challenge of a breeder having to measure thousands of plots,” said Balota. “Over a period of several days, weather patterns change. It would be difficult to compare a variety you measured Monday with one you measured the previous Friday.”
“People tried to use similar technology with satellites or planes,” said Balota. “But those types of devices fly at a much higher altitude than drones, and comparing small plots was difficult.”
Drone technology also allows for a much more nuanced view of research.
“With this technology, we should be able to identify much easier those small genetic differences between cultivars because of either heat or drought tolerance.”
Balota’s drone research is funded primarily by the Virginia Peanut Board, Virginia-Carolina Peanut Association, and Virginia Crop Improvement Association.