Mapping Agriculture from Space

November 1, 2017

How AAFC’s new generation of satellite-based agri-environment indicators will help drive change in Canada’s agricultural sector.

By Mark Halsall

These days, timely, reliable and spatially specific information is critical for developing and supporting agricultural policies and programs in a wide range of areas. These areas include: business risk management; early warning systems for floods, drought and pests; food security, public health and safety; and the environment and its sustainability.

This much-needed information is a big reason why “geospatial data,” the term used to indicate data with a geographic component to it, is helping driving innovation in Canada’s agriculture sector and has become increasingly important for producers, scientists and policymakers, says Andrew Davidson, manager of Earth observation operations with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).

NDVI anomalies

This map, available through AAFC’s Website (, illustrates vegetation health in comparison to a historical average. It is one of dozens of services powered by AAFC’s geospatial mapping data.

Geospatial data is generated by various means, including satellites, aircraft, and drones.

According to Davidson, the AAFC has extensive expertise in geospatial data development, management, integration, and application, making it well-positioned to provide independent and authoritative information to Canada’s agricultural sector.

“We’ve been doing this geospatial work for a long time,” he notes. “We’ve had scientists doing remote sensing work since the 1990s, and we’ve learned a lot over the past 10 to 15 years through the numerous projects we’ve been involved with.”

Some of the more recent projects address new issues arising in agriculture that are related to sustainability and the effects of agricultural operations on the larger ecosystem.

“We have an emerging consumer base that is demanding more and more that the products they buy at the grocery stores are grown and harvested through environmentally sustainable methods,” says Davidson.

“Because many Canadian, American and European food manufacturers and retailers have made public commitments to meeting sustainability goals, the ability of Canadian producers to export their products depends on their ability to demonstrate their adherence to the sustainability guidelines.”

According to Davidson, the AAFC is helping the Canadian agricultural sector show how it’s adhering to sustainability requirements by providing “improved, targeted, authoritative information” on their use of agricultural resources.

This spatially explicit information is generated through science- based agri-environmental metrics that combine biophysical information on soils, water, climate, and topography with data on land use, crops, and farm management practices.

Davidson says an example of AAFC’s involvement with sustainability metrics was when the Canola Council of Canada sought assistance for growers seeking access to biofuel markets in Europe about five years ago. The AAFC produced an independent, authoritative data set (at no cost to producers) that helped many canola growers demonstrate they were following environmentally sustainable practices, like not converting neighbouring woodlands into farmland.

Davidson reports that the quality of agri-economic information has improved considerably in the last 10 years, thanks in part to the AAFC’s focus on new Earth Observation (EO) technologies that enable satellite sensors to gain a much clearer picture of the planet’s surface.

According to him, data from numerous satellites and satellite arrays, including ones from Canada, the U.S., Europe, Japan, China and even India, is now used to map and monitor Canada’s agricultural resources in much great detail, even down to field level.

“We are now developing a new generation of indicators,” Davidson says. “Advances in satellite and sensor engineering and the proliferation of space-based EO missions over the past decade or so have made EO data less expensive, timelier, more reliable, more available, and easier to integrate and disseminate.”

He notes that data from satellite sensors has allowed AAFC scientists to acquire different types of information on the electro-magnetic spectrum (visible, near-infrared, shortwave infrared, thermal infrared, and microwave) across a wide range of spatial resolutions (five metres to one kilometre) and sampling frequencies (daily to every few weeks).

AAFC has developed numerous web-based apps, tools and data support mechanisms to make satellite-generated ag information open and accessible to all Canadians.

Using various web portals, growers can download data in various standard geospatial file formats to use in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or other software. Agricultural maps and information can also be viewed and analyzed without having to download large chunks of data or specialized software.

“What we’re allowing people to do is access all this information without being subject matter experts. All you need is a computer, an internet connection and a browser,” says Davidson. Examples of AAFC’s geospatial products include:

  • Drought Watch: Provides timely information on weather and climate relevant to Canadian agricultural sector;
  • Agroclimate Impact Reporter: An online network maintained by volunteers that updates agroclimate conditions across the country;
  • AgriMap: Interactive mapping application with built-in tools to customize maps for simplifying land-use decision-making;
  • Canadian Ag-Land Monitoring System: Monitors vegetation conditions within Canada’s agricultural extent in near-real-time; and
  • Annual Crop Inventory: A survey of what’s grown across Canada every year (great for determining rotational crops in your area).

To access the data and various apps and tools, Davidson recommends going to Government of Canada’s Data Portal website (open. as a first step. “Just go there, search for whatever it is you want, and follow the links.”