Weather watching

Monitoring network maintained by UF keeps an eye on Mother Nature


Larry Treadaway, coordinator of the Florida Automated Weather Network, adjusts equipment at a new monitoring station in Bronson.

TARA PIASIO/UF/IFAS
Published: Monday, December 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 30, 2003 at 10:44 p.m.

Facts

FYI: Farm forecasts

  • When the National Weather Service cut funding for agricultural forecasting in Florida in 1996, state farmers lost an important resource for weather prediction and crop management.

  • Current weather service forecasts are based on data gathered in urban regions, where concrete and pavement can make temperatures up to 10 degrees hotter than in rural areas.

  • On the farm, 10 degrees can be the difference between successful harvests or frost-damaged produce. But with tools like the Florida Automated Weather Network, or FAWN, farmers can monitor rural weather conditions - from soil and air temperatures to dew points - and make adjustments to the operations accordingly.

  • On cold winter nights, when temperatures hover around freezing, Island Grove blueberry grower Ken Patterson can't pry himself away from the keyboard of his personal computer.
    "I'm just watching it," Patterson said, reflecting on how the Internet and a University of Florida real-time computer program help him predict the weather and save his southeastern Alachua County fruit from early season frost.
    "I use it as a real guideline," he said.
    From weather vanes to colonial-age guides like the "Old Farmer's Almanac" and Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanack," technology has long helped farmers forecast subtle changes in the weather.
    But given the scientific limitations of such tools - the "Old Farmer's Almanac," for example, first published in 1792, credits a "secret weather forecasting formula" for its earliest outlooks - accuracy in such predictions was spotty, miscalculations that often cost growers much of their annual yields.
    What a difference a few centuries can make.
    A statewide monitoring network maintained by UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is helping farmers like Patterson redefine the art of weather watching, moving the practice of short- and long-range agricultural forecasting in Florida into the 21st century.
    The Florida Automated Weather Network, or FAWN, is a statewide weather collection system connecting nearly three-dozen rural monitoring stations with computers in Gainesville, supplying real-time data to state farmers via the Internet or telephone.
    "You have to think about where the National Weather Service has its weather stations - at airports - which doesn't sound bad until you start to think," said network coordinator Larry Treadaway, a computer applications specialist at IFAS.
    Because airports are generally centered in large metropolitan areas, surrounded by a sea of concrete and asphalt, temperatures where the Weather Service takes its readings can be as much as 10 degrees warmer than in rural areas, Treadaway said.
    "And if you are talking about a freeze night (for a farmer), you don't think 10 degrees is significant?" he asked. "It's highly significant. That was kind of the impetus for starting the FAWN."
    Planning for the network began in 1997, a year after the National Weather Service cut spending on agricultural weather forecasting, Treadaway said. Early on, network coverage was limited to Central and South Florida.
    But last year, additional funding allocated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped pave the way for the addition of 12 new stations, located from Jay in Santa Rosa County to Belle Glade in Palm Beach County.
    A 13th station is planned for Hillsborough County and, with it, a total of 33 stations will be linked statewide. The network - valued at $800,000 - relays real-time air, soil, wind, rainfall, humidity and solar radiation data, and is available instantly online, with updates every 15 minutes.
    Alachua County's station is off State Road 121, north of Gainesville.
    Treadaway said some of the new monitoring stations were made possible through cooperation from other state agencies, including the Division of Forestry, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the UF Department of Astronomy.
    For day-to-day operations, Treadaway and fellow network coordinator John Jackson, a UF Lake County extension agent, say farmers can save time and money by using FAWN to make weather-related decisions.
    For example, growers of cold-sensitive crops like blueberries and citrus can use air-temperature updates to know when to turn off overhead irrigation used for frost control. Patterson, who owns Island Grove Agricultural Products in Island Grove, has been using FAWN for that purpose for years.
    "Most growers leave their protective irrigation systems on too long," said Jackson, wasting water and energy every time there is a frost.
    "Over the last three years, we estimate FAWN has helped citrus, strawberry, fern, vegetable and ornamental growers save 20 billion gallons of water and $10 million in cold-protection costs," Jackson added.
    Over time, growers have even started looking to FAWN as a tool for generating weather-driven strategies for pest-control, irrigation scheduling and other management needs. Treadaway said new FAWN-generated management tools are already being developed, and their online release is expected soon.
    Gary Brinen, a horticulture agent with the UF extension service, said the network has become an invaluable tool for farmers and researchers alike.
    "I make a lot of use of it," Brinen said. "I just downloaded a year's worth of data to figure out dew points to see if we can expand the period when it's safe from disease to irrigate."
    In past years, Brinen said the extension service has also used FAWN to determine safe times for household watering and to establish harvesting and fertilizing guidelines.
    "It gives more data and it gives it more frequently" than other nonagricultural services, he said.
    Greg Bruno can be reached at 374-5026 or greg.bruno@gvillesun.com.

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