On Mondays we focus on technology. Today, spying on farmers.

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Most farmers are trustworthy, of course, but the Agriculture Department isn't taking any chances. It's spending tens of millions of dollars to create an enormous computerized map of every farmer's field. It's intended to insure that American farmers are doing what's required to earn their government subsidies, as Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES reporting:

Think of the USDA as the country's biggest real estate investor. It passes out billions of dollars each year to half-a-million farmers. Some get money for protecting steams and wetlands, others for growing specific crops. But its no easy matter keeping track of hundreds of millions of acres, from Maine to California.

So, the USDA has turned to what you might call spy flights.

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This small twin-engine aircraft getting ready to take off from a sleepy airstrip in Lees Summit, Missouri, carries a million dollar digital camera in its belly. It's owned by GE Geospatial, an aerial photography company.

In the middle of each summer, that plane flies back and forth across Kansas at 22,000 feet - twice its normal working altitude. It's trying to get the widest possible view of the earth beneath. The cabin isn't pressured, so pilots have to wear oxygen masks.

Bob Buttram(ph), the company's chief pilot, says it's some of the toughest flying he's ever done.

Mr. BOB BUTTRAM (Chief Pilot, GE Geospatial): The body just doesn't take the pressure change that well. It's not uncommon for a guy to get an ear infection after, a week, two weeks, of flying like that.

CHARLES: Every few miles, at precise intervals, the camera snaps a picture. And within days, those pictures, along with a 100,000 others from other parts of the country, arrive at the headquarters of Surdex Corporation, in Chesterfield, Missouri. Surdex is one of ten companies that is assembling this atlas of American agriculture for the USDA.

Mr. CRAIG MOLANDER (Senior Vice President, Surdex): That's got to be from the northwest somewhere. That's got to be Idaho or something.

CHARLES: Craig Molander, senior vice president of Surdex, looks over the shoulder of one of his colleagues and sees an image filled with craggy mountains. It turned out to be in South Dakota.

Molander has spent much of his life looking down at the earth from far overhead, but the pictures used to be classified top secret. Before he went to work at Surdex, he worked in military intelligence. Times have changed, he says. Now everybody gets to look down at the world from the sky.

Mr. MOLANDER: People got used to seeing it on the news. And now you have Microsoft and Google doing web-enabled services on it. So the demand is going up and up. I think these people have gotten accustomed to finding that data.

CHARLES: It's surprisingly complicated, through, to convert raw photos into the kind of seamless tableau now available through Google Earth or Microsoft's local live website. Pictures lie.

Rivers or fields at the edge of each image look smaller than they should, because they're farther from the camera. Tops of mountains, being closer, look bigger than they should. The computers at Surdex can correct those distortions, though, and the company will deliver pictures of Kansas farmland to the USDA that match almost exactly the real world. That turns the photos into a powerful tool for local USDA officials, like Myron Stroup, in Olathe, Kansas.

Mr. MYRON STROUP (USDA Official; Olathe, Kansas): We're actually just scratching the surface of what this - this can do for us.

CHARLES: Stroup oversees several million dollars in federal payments every year to 1,500 farmers in two counties in eastern Kansas. He's looking at one of those new aerial photos on his computer. It shows one small corner of Johnson County.

Mr. STROUP: You're also seeing, here, amongst this farmland, some urban sprawl. Here's a cul-de-sac. Here's housing development...

CHARLES: But there's more here than just a photo. Laid out on top of the checkerboard of green and brown fields are red lines. They show the field boundaries. And when Stroup clicks inside the lines, he uncovers a hidden storehouse of information.

Mr. STROUP: I've selected three different fields right here, and I can open a table and show what the attributes or the data is on those three fields right here. I've got fields one, two, and three. I have the acres, and two out of the three fields are highly erodible land.

CHARLES: Another click, and the map shows what farmers promised to plant on those fields. Stroup can see whether the picture in front of him matches those promises.

The other day, he was looking at a field that was supposed to be left as grassland. It's part of a program to preserve soil and wildlife, called the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP.

Mr. STROUP: And I pulled up the picture of this one CRP field and it looked, what appeared to me, like a lot of big, round hay bales out there. And I thought, hmm, you know, that doesn't look quite right. Did this person go out and hay their CRP when they didn't have authorization to do that?

CHARLES: When he drove out to look, though, those round shapes turned out to be newly planted trees, which are permitted.

Stroup and other USDA officials don't like to call this spying on farmers, and they prefer not to talk about farmers cheating. They say it's mostly just a way to keep their records accurate.

The USDA's critics, such as the Congressional Government Accountability Office, say the agency is way too easy on the farmers it subsidizes. Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars continue to flow to growers who've broken the rules by plowing up native prairie or draining wetlands. The new system should help catch those violations.

And Scott Willbrant, a coordinator of this mapping effort for the State of Kansas, says the new digital atlas will be useful to a lot of other people too.

Mr. SCOTT WILLBRANT (Mapping Coordinator, Kansas): This will be one of the most sought-after data sets ever.

CHARLES: Let's say you wanted to stop soil from washing into a local river. Combine this map with others that already exist and it would show you pretty quickly which fields might be creating the problem. It would also tell you who owns those fields, so you'd know who to call.

Mr. WILLBRANT: It's unlimited what other industry can do with it - other agencies can do with it. They probably have more use for it than we do, actually.

CHARLES: For now, though, the USDA is keeping much of their computerized atlas confidential. Officials say they're trying to decide how much of their surveillance data they can share.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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