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Satellites Are Great, But They Don’t Beat U.S. Crop Forecasters

  • Firms use cameras in space, algorithms to gain edge in markets
  • USDA says images ‘not advanced enough,’ prefers farmer surveys
Satellite imagery of the agricultural fields in Meridian County, California. 

Photographer: DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

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For decades, government satellites have been taking detailed photographs of crops around the world that are now being tapped by traders like Cargill Inc. to gain an edge in global grain markets.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- the benchmark in forecasting domestic crops -- says the images by themselves still can’t be relied upon to predict annual corn, wheat or soybean harvests. Instead, the government’s main source of information remains farmer surveys and random field samples.