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Anna Coker: Farmer’s daughter carving career path in ag research

Brad Robb Anna-Coker-DFP-BRobb
The research Anna Coker is conducting comparing normalized difference vegetation index readings taken from unmanned aerial vehicles versus readings taken with a handheld sensor will one day allow farmers to obtain mid-year nitrogen requirements faster and more accurately.
From driving tractors and planting crops, to punching holes in poly-pipe and shoveling levee gates, Anna Coker became a farmer — and much more.

Anna Coker grew up a farmer’s daughter. Although she spent her childhood in proximity to rice fields around Stuttgart, Ark., she never considered a career in agriculture until 2014 when her uncle, Mike Hill, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

That is when she became the newest employee of Coker Farms. “My dad, along with other farmers in the area, immediately began taking care of my uncle’s crops, in addition to their own,” says Coker, who today holds an undergraduate degree in Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences from the University of Arkansas and is currently working toward her master’s degree in that same discipline at Louisiana State University.

Over the next few years, Coker began seeing the broad-brush strokes agriculture painted on the world outside of her hometown. “To that point in my life, my interests revolved around school, friends, and having fun,” says Coker. “I knew my dad farmed each day, but after my uncle’s diagnosis, I began to understand that I was part of something so much bigger than I had ever imagined.”

When she worked in the fields, everything she learned, she learned hands-on. From driving tractors and planting crops, to punching holes in poly-pipe and shoveling levee gates, Anna Coker became a farmer — and much more. “Life threw us a curve ball, but it taught me how to be completely selfless when someone close needs help,” adds Coker.

She began absorbing everything around her related to agriculture, and more importantly in the process, she developed a strong and enduring bond with her father many daughters are not lucky enough to experience. “Dad always told me I’d never have to work a day in my life if I woke up each morning to something I loved,” she remembers. “It was that defining moment in my life when I realized pursuing a career in agriculture would give me an opportunity to contribute to a profession in which my family has deep roots.”

College and Research

She enrolled at the University of Arkansas and after her time there, headed to Baton Rouge and Louisiana State University. She soon passed the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 Aeronautical Knowledge Test and became a licensed drone pilot.

She showcased her latest research at this year’s H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station Field Day in Rayne, La., which involves comparing Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI) readings obtained from a handheld GreenSeeker sensor versus gathering that data from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to estimate rice grain yield potential. To accurately estimate the midseason nitrogen rates in rice and produce a working predictive algorithm, Coker had to know three things: (1) The rice variety’s yield potential; (2) Response Index; and (3) Rice response to nitrogen fertilization.

NDVI is the accepted indicator of yield potential in rice, and until now, the GreenSeeker has been the most commonly used sensor technology to gather that data.

“It would obviously be more efficient if researchers, consultants, and/or farmers could obtain this information by using a UAV rather than by having to trudge through a flooded rice field in the heat of the day with a hand-held sensor,” says Coker. “If I can illustrate the potential to accurately map a rice field’s variability with a UAV, that will go a long way toward obtaining midseason nitrogen application recommendations more expeditiously.”

At the very least Coker hopes this specific project will be a stepping stone to determining nitrogen rates on a full-scale field level via a UAV, compared to single point-to-point readings taken from handheld sensors.

Variables have the potential to impact any research, and Coker’s research is no different. The UAV-mounted sensor depends on a passive light source — the sun, which varies in its angle of incident light (reflected light), cloud cover, and light intensity. The camera she uses on the UAV is equipped with a “normalizing sunshine sensor” to stabilize the sunlight so readings will be more consistent.

NDVI measurements were taken between panicle initiation and panicle differentiation at two separate locations in 2017 and 2018. “I accumulated more data this year than last, and I’m hoping to show improved accuracy from the UAV,” adds Coker. “If I can prove this is a reliable method of gauging nitrogen needs in rice, it will save growers money from overapplying fertilizer while allowing them to make more timely decisions.”

Coker is currently an understudy for Dr. Dustin Harrell, Agronomy and Environmental Management, at the LSU AgCenter. “As technology in agriculture continues to evolve and improve, we will need a generation of researchers that not only know how to utilize these technologies to gather field data, but more importantly, how to interpret that data and derive pertinent agronomic recommendations based on it,” says Harrell. “That is an area where Anna excels.”

Down the Road

Coker plans to continue her education and hopes to pursue her doctorate after receiving her master’s degree. “I believe obtaining all the education I can will increase my confidence and ability to handle whatever I face in the future as I continue my career in agriculture,” adds Coker. “I’m not sure what career path I will take in agriculture, but I want to be prepared for it.”

Like so many people involved in agriculture, Coker has witnessed the lack of knowledge or appreciation people outside of agriculture have about how their food and fiber are produced. In pure Anna Coker style, she is currently starting an agricultural blog to showcase the many personal stories from farmers, rice mills, researchers, consultants, and others. “I want to cut on an ag educational light, of sorts, for those that have misconceptions about agriculture,” says Coker.

Most of her family reside in the same Stuttgart neighborhood, and live within walking distance of each other. While she has been at college, Coker has missed the family togetherness. Her father farms around 6,500 acres of corn, soybeans, and rice. Her family also manages Dry Lake Hunting Service, a commercial duck hunting operation outside of Stuttgart — the self-proclaimed rice and duck hunting capital of the world.

During a recent phone conversation with her father, they began reminiscing about the time Anna started helping on the farm. “Dad would post pictures of me on Instagram while I drove a tractor or sloshed through flooded rice fields,” laughs Coker. “He would always include the same hashtag: #collegegirlcountrygirl.”

Anna Coker is proud to live up to that hashtag every day.

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