• United States



Crop Detective

Apr 01, 20063 mins
Critical InfrastructureCSO and CISOInvestigation and Forensics

John Brown may not be able to find a needle in a haystack. But using satellite imagery, he can tell you if hay was ever growing on the farm.


John Brown may not be able to find a needle in a haystack. But using satellite imagery, he can tell you if hay was ever growing on the farm. As an agricultural investigator, Brown collects evidence by searching satellite images for such things as whether crop damage claims are true, and if there are overlooked water resources.

Brown has testified in more than 2 dozen cases for private clients, the Justice Department and the Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency, which oversees Federal Crop Insurance. The USDA introduced crop insurance in the 1930s to help farmers cope with the repercussions of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. But a rise in fraudulent insurance claims has forced the USDA to keep a close eye out for cheats. The agency has turned to Brown for help.

In 2004, Brown testified in the case of Wendell Mints, a Texas farmer who was found guilty of falsifying crop insurance and loss documents and costing the government more than $500,000. Brown used land satellite images to prove that in some of the fields where Mints claimed to have planted cotton and grain sorghum crops, cattle were grazing; others lay fallow. “We looked at satellite images of different fields he had in the area and found that many of them had never even been plowed,” says Brown.

John Brown uses satellite images and radar tools to examine agricultural activity, weather patterns (including cloud cover and hurricanes), and land elevation and temperature.

Richard Edwards, an assistant U.S. attorney in Asheville, N.C., worked with Brown on the case of Robert and Viki Warren in 2002. The pair from North Carolina pled guilty to participating in a scheme to defraud the government out of $9 million between 1997 and 2001. “The beauty of the satellite imaging is that it’s a form of evidence that is objective, scientific and credible,” says Edwards, adding that the images “aren’t subject to failed memory or personal bias.”

Brown also uses Next Generation Weather Radar, which covers 159 weather surveillance sites around the globe and has archives dating back to 1995. Brown can review weather patterns and storms years after they occur. He is also using NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission spacecraft in a project to determine wind and water damage to property in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Brown, who received a PhD from North Carolina State University in Magnetic Resonance Imaging in plant and water investigations, left university research and teaching in 1993. Aside from crop investigation, Brown says, much of his future work with satellite imagery will focus on the detection of water. One such project was in Guatemala, investigating the impact that a dam in the Usamacinta River would have on jungle areas and ancient Mayan cities; he also worked with an international pipeline company to detect leaks and to locate new water delivery routes. Brown used historical images to detect where irrigation wells once were.

Brown says he can resolve an average case in 10 to 30 hours, but some can go on for years. He charges $145 per hour, but he says he can be flexible, as in one small farmer’s case. “He’s been taken advantage of by the system, and he deserves compensation,” says Brown. “That’s a different kind of circumstance.”