News Farmers Honor Li for Cutting-Edge Research

Farmers Honor Li for Cutting-Edge Research

Farmers Honor Li for Cutting-Edge Research
September 1, 2023 |

By Marlee Jackson

For more than a year, Alabama Farmers Federation meetings have had a near-constant agenda item: Spray Drone Demonstration by Dr. Steve Li.

Li’s high-flying presentations, coupled with on-farm research, have helped farmers across commodities harness innovative technology for crop protection.

That same work earned Li the Federation’s Rittenour Award for Production Agriculture & Forestry Research, presented Aug. 10 during the Farm & Land Expo in Mobile.

“Dr. Li listens to us,” said Jeremy Wilson of Talladega County, one of several farmers who nominated Li. “He’s on the cutting edge. He’s testing the tech farmers don’t have but that we want to get and use.”

This is the fifth annual Rittenour Award, which recognizes Auburn University (AU) faculty for creative research. Li is an associate professor and Extension specialist focused on weed science and received $10,000 from the Alabama Farmers Agriculture Foundation.

Since joining AU’s staff in 2014, Li has tested the next generation of technology slated to revolutionize farming while saving time and money.

Today’s solution is spray drones.

The battery-powered drones are about the size of a truck bed once the arms, fitted with propellers and nozzles, extend. The drones spot-spray weeds; reduce crop damage caused by tall spray rigs; and help farmers manage crops in soggy fields.

Li’s research examines drone efficacy and efficiency. He’s testing spray rates, mapping techniques and applications farmers can use for row crops, nursery plants and more.

“The ultimate goal is to test new methods and technologies on farms in a real setting and see how it works,” said Li, who has degrees from China Agricultural University, AU and the University of Georgia. “If I only fly on picture-perfect, super-flat fields with no obstacles, it’ll be easy. I’ll never crash a drone. I tell people, ‘Throw me a tough one.’”

Dr. Steve Li received the Rittenour Award for Excellence in Production Agriculture & Forestry Research Aug. 10 during the Alabama Farmers Federation Farm & Land Expo in Mobile. As the winner, Li, an associate professor and Extension specialist focused on weed science, receives $10,000 for programming from the Alabama Farmers Agriculture Foundation. From left are Federation President Jimmy Parnell and Li.

Li’s calm demeanor and commitment to excellence helped the researcher build an easy rapport with farmers. That includes Wilson, who chairs the Federation’s State Wheat & Feed Grain Committee, which has funded trials through checkoff dollars. Cotton, peanut and soybean checkoffs have invested in Li’s research, too.

Li often shares research results on Facebook. His feed is peppered with positive comments, questions and stakeholders volunteering for on-farm trials. Li’s recommendations and training sessions have also helped Alabama farmers fight herbicide resistance and reduce drift over the last decade.

Now drone demos are paying dividends. Alabama’s first commercial spray drone companies went live this year. Individual farmers are also gaining Federal Aviation Administration approval.

Li’s influence extends beyond Alabama through professional agronomic and engineering societies. He’s earned invitations to Environmental Protection Agency meetings, CropLife America discussions and international technology summits. 

In August, he was back on the Federation’s Farm & Land Expo agenda highlighting drone use and laws — just two days after his Rittenour Award recognition.

“I appreciate it very much,” he said. “I don’t help people for a return. I wasn’t expecting anything, but this is a pleasant surprise. And I think it’s great to know people appreciate what we do.” 

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