Detailed data at growers’ fingertips

Photos courtesy of Washington State University, Unless Otherwise Noted.
Washington’s mountains create multiple microclimates within the state.

The weather can be a grower’s best friend or worst enemy. Many growing regions cope with ongoing drought, while others battle flooding. High-value crops such as strawberries can be wiped out when conditions suddenly turn from balmy to freezing. Strong winds from thunderstorms and hurricanes may devastate tree fruit growers, and too much sun can scald tomatoes. Yet, with the right tools at your disposal, you need not be at the mercy of Mother Nature.

The best general forecasting systems can be inadequate because weather and climatic conditions can vary greatly within a single county. An on-site weather station capable of monitoring and recording an array of data can help you cope with whatever conditions may arise. An agricultural weather network can serve as your customized meteorologist and help manage your crops and inputs throughout the season.

What is an agricultural weather network?

An agricultural weather network pools resources to put detailed weather data in the hands of growers. This is particularly important in a state such as Washington, which is composed of several different microclimates due to its mountainous terrain. Washington State University’s (WSU) AgWeatherNet (www.weather.wsu.edu) offers Internet access to detailed raw weather data. Decision aids are available to help manage crops given current, historical and upcoming conditions.

The WSU network of monitoring stations primarily operates within the irrigated regions of eastern Washington, but has expanded into western and dry land areas. It is managed by a team at the university’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. The data also is available for other WSU entities.

Challenges for the Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet include the state’s terrain, telemetry and land access.

The weather-monitoring hardware consists of Campbell Scientific CR-1000 data loggers, and sensors designed by the WSU Center for Precision Agricultural Systems, as well as commercial models, are used. Nine weather parameters are stored on the data logger at the site and transmitted to the network team via a hybrid communications system. The majority of transmissions flow through the Verizon wireless network’s cellular modems, with some data sent through two-way spread-spectrum radios. Robert Krebs, the network’s operations manager, says Washington’s terrain makes telemetry difficult, however. Locating stations within view of cellular and radio towers isn’t always an easy task. Satellite telemetry is less troublesome, but far more costly.

The 20-year-old network receives significant state funding, along with grants from agricultural organizations including the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and the Washington Wine Industry Foundation. Increased state allocations in recent years allowed the installation of new stations, bringing the current total to 124.  

Putting the network on your side

The network was initially deployed to aid in irrigation scheduling, but a myriad of services are now available. Logging onto the Web site, a user sees a large state map displaying current conditions for each monitoring station. Air and soil temperature, humidity, leaf wetness, wind, dew point, cumulative rain, soil moisture, solar radiation and elevation all are reported in real time.

There is no cost for joining the service, which allows users to view and download reports and raw data on such factors as wind chill, wind rose, normal precipitation levels and frost dates. Users can review readings from various time periods, monitored on the quarter hour. With tools such as water use reports organized by crop and date, growers can plan irrigation efficiently. Models for such diseases as apple scab, cherry powdery mildew and grape bunch rot are available, along with risk analyses of infestation. A partnering tool, the decision aid service (www.entomology.tfrec.wsu.edu/das), is offered during the growing season to assist in forming action plans given specific conditions.

Additional weather products, such as direct access to historical data, are available on a fee basis. Krebs says that individual growers and support companies are also developing specific tools to make the data tailored to their needs. Capturing the collective brainpower involved can vastly increase the network’s value for its 3,300 subscribers. The Web site received 11.5 million hits and 179,000 unique visitors last year.

A newer service involves alerting growers to conditions via e-mail and text messages. Receiving a text on a cell phone when freezing temperatures develop unexpectedly can mean the difference between a bumper crop and none whatsoever. Advice related to temperature, combined with moisture, can give growers a heads-up on potential disease pressures.

“If a grower can use this service to save one spraying, he can save thousands of dollars,” Krebs says.

Kevin Corliss of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (www.ste-michelle-wine-estates.com/) in the Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area has found that to be true.

“Weather data, including the AgWeather-Net, has resulted in the greatest cost savings in the area of disease management,” he says.

Ste. Michelle has had the network in its arsenal of tools since the service was deployed. Corliss says the company uses it in several ways to optimize performance of its three vineyards and to lend a hand to the growers from whom it purchases additional grapes. The number of stations in varying areas allows managers to formulate plans for dealing with diseases such as powdery mildew. Drawing upon historical data to forecast timing of bud breaks, maturation and other critical milestones helps Corliss and others determine the best techniques year to year. If, for example, factors point to a late cool season, harder thinning may be in order.

Reviewing weather history also plays a role when Ste. Michelle considers establishing a new vineyard.

“Since eastern Washington is a relatively young growing area, broad weather information, among other factors, helps us predict if grapes will grow well,” Corliss adds.

Increased state funding facilitated a recent expansion of weather stations in Washington.

Challenges and new plans

In addition to perfecting the telemetry and coping with the state’s diverse conditions, challenges abound for the AgWeatherNet team. During the expansion, equipment supply chain difficulties were encountered, slowing installation of new stations. In addition, the equipment can’t simply be placed in optimal locations; landowners must agree to sponsor stations. The greatest obstacle to keeping the network up and running smoothly is the lack of staff resources; currently, only two dedicated maintenance staff are on board.

“It’s easy to put a station out, but hard to maintain it,” Krebs says.

Still, he remains optimistic about the network’s future. The expansion is 95 percent complete and the team is able to manage the network using statistical tools versus continually battling emergencies. And, there are more improvements and enhanced services yet to be unveiled.

“We are currently working on delivering more information via Web-based products that will more readily display on hand-held devices,” says Krebs. “We also hope to provide our Web display in Spanish in the near future, which we hope will help to better inform the labor forces on the ground at grower locations.”

Agricultural Weather Networks

Although services aren’t available in all areas, many states do offer weather networks. Your local cooperative extension service or state department of agriculture may have additional resources available in your area. Existing networks:

Colorado: ccc.atmos.colostate.edu/~coagmet
Florida: fawn.ifas.ufl.edu
Georgia: www.georgiaweather.ne
Indiana: data.eol.ucar.edu
Michigan: www.agweather.geo.msu.edu/mawn
Missouri: agebb.missouri.edu/weather
North Carolina: www.nc-climate.ncsu.edu/
North Dakota: ndawn.ndsu.nodak.edu
Oklahoma: agweather.mesonet.org
Pacific Northwest: www.usbr.gov/pn/agrimet/

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.