Man talking to men and women in a field (USDA Foreign Agricultural Service)
USDA Foreign Agricultural Service analyst Andrés Romero shows Panamanian analysts how to collect field data with a mobile application. (USDA Foreign Agricultural Service)

Panamanians eat rice at almost every meal. Yet many rice farmers in the Central American nation lack information that predicts severe weather. They could protect their fields from the effects of hurricanes and drought if only they had access to satellite imagery.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service is training Panamanian officials to use satellite imagery to see trends and analyze how disasters will affect rice farms.

Satellite data helps “farmers to plant as safely as possible within the rotation,” says Alberto Martinelli, president of Asociación Nacional de Molineros, Panama’s rice millers’ association. “What we’re trying to do is cover the entire country, so all the farmers know what’s going on and have the information to make decisions.”

Better forecasting with satellites will also help Panamanian officials predict and prepare for the time when subsidies are needed.

Planting a good idea

Panama’s Ministerio de Desarrollo Agropecuario, the agricultural ministry, in 2019 requested training on USDA’s Global Agricultural and Disaster Assessment System, which uses satellite imagery and other data to predict crop production.

In a July 25 letter to USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, Panamanian agriculture officials said the system will better estimate rice yields and suggested that Panama may eventually use the database to support farmers of other crops as well. The system assesses thousands of satellite images taken over a period of more than a decade.

USDA’s Andrés Romero says the assessment system “allows more informed decisions and more efficient use of resources” for both farmers and the Panamanian government. USDA and U.S. Agency for International Development are funding the training.

The system can help detect short- and long-term weather trends and inform planting and harvesting times, according to USDA’s Justin Jenkins, who along with his colleague Katie McGaughey leads training efforts in Panama.

The training comes as the U.S. is expanding the Growth in the Americas program, or América Crece. The program partners with Latin American and Caribbean countries and increases private-sector investment in infrastructure.

Romero says better agricultural forecasting in Panama also benefits U.S. farmers, thanks to an interconnected global economy.

“Information coming from different countries makes the quality of agricultural markets better,” he says. “U.S. farmers can make better- informed decisions.”