Remote weather stations give farmers timely advice

February 4, 2009 6:05:45 PM PST
For apple growers like Abby Jacobson, making or losing money depends as much on what they don't do as what they do. So when data from Michigan State University's high-tech weather monitoring network helped her decide to skip four costly chemical sprayings this spring, she considered it an unqualified success.

"I think it's really positive for our industry and it really benefits our customers," said Jacobson, who co-owns Westview Orchards, about 25 miles north of Detroit, with sister Katrina Schumacher.

Technicians installed the station in March in an open field near fruit trees at the 188-acre orchard near Romeo. The station checks wind speed and direction, air temperature, humidity, precipitation, solar radiation, leaf wetness, and soil moisture and temperature at two depths.

A modem links the station - one of 57 statewide - to Verizon Communications Inc.'s broadband wireless network, which feeds the data every five minutes to Michigan State's Enviro-weather computer programs.

They, in turn, crunch the numbers and give farmers up-to-the-minute advice on when to plant; apply fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides; irrigate and harvest their crops. The information is instantly available free to farmers by logging in to Enviro-weather's Web site.

Washington State University operates its own network of 109 stations, and smaller systems are growing in Florida, Georgia, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Utah.

Tech-savvy farmers are eager for the help that real-time weather data and analysis can provide them while they make decisions on pest control, disease control and water management, said Robert Krebs, operations manager for Washington State's AgWeatherNet system.

He said those who grow grapes and tree fruits find it particularly useful to know when it's safe to skip chemicals. "If you can avoid one spraying application, you've paid for that station," he said.

Enviro-weather operates with funds from a variety of public and private sources. Individual farmers or produce associations pay for the stations, which cost about $10,000 each to install, operate and maintain for three years.

The stations are remarkably self-sufficient, requiring biannual maintenance, plus occasional repairs for such hazards as severe weather and animals chewing through wires, said Steve Marquie, manager of field operations for Enviro-weather.

By the end of July, the network is adding five more stations across southern Michigan to test conditions for growing prairie grass and switch grass as biofuels, he said.

The synergy between agriculture and high-speed wireless communication amazes Verizon Wireless data sales manager Heidi Olesko.

"Who would have ever thought a farmer would be looking at a Web site to decide whether to grow corn or beans this year?" said Olesko, who worked with Michigan State to set up Enviro-weather.

Stations outside Verizon's service area are operated by Alltel Communications LLC and Thumb Wireless. Two years after Michigan State launched the weather network, many growers now see it as vital in making key management decisions, Marquie said.

"We hear time and time again: `We don't know what we'd do without you," he said.

Jacobson said she was a fan of Enviro-weather well before she got her own monitoring station, checking data from nearby counties and extrapolating her own conditions.

Now, she no longer has to guess. Relying on data from her station, she has been able to skip one spraying for the fungus that causes apple scab and three sprayings for fire blight, a bacterial condition that attacks apple and pear trees.

Not only does that put more money in Jacobson's bank account and save her time, it keeps dangerous chemicals out of the environment, she said.

"It's just a win-win situation for all of us," she said.