Big Data Ag

The next green revolution will be data driven and CAES graduates will be ready

From remote moisture sensors that produce a real-time feed of soil conditions to drones that use optical data to spot plant disease, the next green revolution will be fueled by new streams of data.

Putting precision agriculture strategies into practice requires agricultural scientists who are equipped to interpret the data these sensors generate.

To meet this need, the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has launched an Interdisciplinary Certificate in Agricultural Data Science — one of the first of its kind in the nation — to equip CAES graduate students with the data-analysis expertise they will need to capitalize on this big data revolution.

“In other disciplines — business and health care — programs focused on data science have already taken off,” said Harald Scherm, professor and head of UGA’s Department of Plant Pathology. “But there was no such formal program in agricultural data science.”

After hearing from students, researchers and employers that there is a need for data-analysis expertise in agricultural research and applied agricultural science, CAES faculty members worked with colleagues in the UGA statistics and computer science departments and in the UGA College of Engineering to develop the certificate program.

Through the certificate, current and future CAES graduate students will plan a schedule of elective and related courses that will complement their agricultural research and expose them to a wide range of principles and practices of data analysis.

“The goal of the graduate certificate is to develop a curriculum that will produce cross-disciplinary and cross-functional, data-smart graduates who can bridge the gaps between the generation, analysis and interpretation of complex data in the agricultural field,” Scherm said. “We’re not looking to train computer scientists, but we want them to be able to discuss data issues and incorporate analysis into their practice.”

CAES’ interdisciplinary Certificate in Agricultural Data Science leverages UGA’s strength in agricultural research and the university’s campuswide informatics initiative to lead in agricultural data science, Scherm said. Elective courses are drawn from four different colleges — CAES, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, and Family and Consumer Sciences — and two institutes — Georgia Informatics Institute and Institute of Bioinformatics.

The certificate program is open to all graduate students at UGA but will be most helpful to those studying agriculture or environmental sciences, Scherm said.

Many areas of agricultural research and practice generate big data streams, from consumer analytics and crop modeling to statistical genetics and precision agriculture, among others. Precision agriculture refers to farming in which data is collected from an ever-expanding array of sensors ranging from satellites to soil-moisture sensors. This data helps farmers decide how to apply agricultural inputs like irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers within a field according to crop needs rather than applying these inputs uniformly across the field.

This more judicious approach to using inputs is critical in helping farms increase their efficiency and profitability while reducing their ecological footprint, said George Vellidis, precision agriculture researcher, professor of crop and soil sciences, and director of academic programs at the UGA Tifton campus.

“With the increasing number of sensors that we use on a daily basis in agriculture, we are collecting terabytes of data each growing season, and precision agriculture has morphed into information agriculture,” Vellidis said. “Our certificate will allow our graduates to fully mine these tremendous data sets and capture all the knowledge embedded in them.”

For more information about the Certificate in Agricultural Data Science, please visit

By Merritt Melancon

Flying drone to asses crop health at UGA-Tifton
Professor George Vellidis, left, and graduate students Anna Orfanou and Dimitrios Pavlou fly a drone to quickly assess crop health at UGA-Tifton. (Photo from University of Georgia Marketing and Communications)