Global food production in the developing world occurs within sub-hectare fields that are difficult to identify with moderate resolution satellite imagery. Knowledge about the distribution of these fields is critical in food security programs. We developed a semi-automated image segmentation approach using wall-to-wall sub-meter imagery with high-performance computing to map crop area (CA) throughout Tigray, Ethiopia that encompasses over 41,000 km2. Multiple processing streams were tested to minimize mapping error while applying five unique smoothing kernels to capture differences in land surface texture associated to CA. Typically, very-small fields (mean < 2 ha) have a smooth image roughness compared to natural scrub/shrub woody vegetation at the ~1 m scale and these features can be segmented in panchromatic imagery with multi-level histogram thresholding. Multi-temporal very-high resolution (VHR) panchromatic imagery with multi-spectral VHR are sufficient in extracting critical CA information needed in food security programs. A 2011 to 2015 CA map was produced, using over 3000 WorldView-1 panchromatic images wall-to-wall in 1/2° mosaics for Tigray, Ethiopia. CA was evaluated with nearly 3000 WorldView-2 2 m multispectral 250 × 250 m image subsets by seven expert interpretations, and with in-situ global positioning system photography. CA estimates ranged from 32 to 41% in sub regions of Tigray with median maximum per bin commission and omission errors of 11% and 1% respectively, with most of the error occurring in bins < 15%. This empirical, simple, and low direct cost approach via U.S. government license agreement to access commercial VHR data, could be a viable big-data high-performance computing methodology to extract wall-to-wall CA for other regions of the world that have very-small agriculture fields with similar image texture.
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