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Weather Stations in the Field Help Farmers Make Split-Second, Smart Irrigation Decisions


Florida Growers have been installing their own weather stations in increasing numbers. With help from the UF/IFAS Florida Automated Weather Network (FAWN), they have been able to more accurately determine when to irrigate to protect their crops from freezes. “The onsite data is exponentially more useful,” explains Rick Lusher, FAWN director. But this fiscal year, the state of Florida no longer has a line item specifically earmarked to help growers buy weather stations. “We all experienced a lot of budget cuts. This coming year we’re hopeful it’s going to be better,” says Susie Bishop, who formerly coordinated the program by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

Instead, during the current fiscal year ending June 30, growers can email Bishop at sbishop@highlandsswcd.org for a referral to their field office staff.
FDACS has been funding up to 75 percent of the cost of the local weather stations since 2013. “As long as dollars are available to cost share, certainly they can apply to their area field staff,” Bishop says.

Since it was founded in 1998, FAWN has been helping farmers to be more efficient by enhancing weather forecasting with more accurate data. On-the farm statistics brought them to a new level.

A few years ago, FAWN began working with these private weather stations being installed with funding obtained through FDACS. Now, in addition to its42 weather stations across the state, FAWN provides forecasts for some 200 private weather stations using the National Weather Service. “It does certainly occupy a lot of our work time,” he says. “Essentially since we’re running two networks side by side.

”Growers are paying out of pocket roughly $1,000 to $5,000 for their own stations when FDACS shares the cost. They also can expect to pay a regular maintenance and/or service year after the initial signup period. “Eventually, they are going to have to pay some monthly fee for the data to be collected,” Lusher says. “That’s between them and the vendor, not between them and us.

”The need for local data was recognized around1996 when the National Weather Service quit doing ag forecasts, leaving growers to rely on data from airports in their region. The result was damage from an unanticipated freeze the very next year, Lusher recalls. Relying on an existing network of weather stations in Lake and Orange counties, FAWN was formed with the goal of helping growers with freeze protection.
The old school way is to turn your water on at night and turn it off the next day,” Lusher explains. “What they can do with our tools is they can pinpoint when the temperature gets here, they can turn on the water, and when it leaves, they can turn it off.

”Citrus, strawberry and blueberry growers are the biggest users of the predominantly free service funded by the University of Florida, three water management districts, FDACS, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent organization of the National Weather Service. It also receives support from grower associations, including Florida Citrus Mutual, Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and Florida Nurserymen, Growers and Landscape Association.

Fern growers in Volusia County, who also are concerned about freezes, also use the data provided online. It costs about $500,000 annually to run FAWN, where information is available without opening an account. The only fee it charges is for its text message service to help with freeze protection; that costs $20 per season.

In addition to freeze protection, FAWN provides data to help schedule irrigation. “Rainfall is not very accurate. You know that for living in Florida,” he says. “There are some limitations to it, but it’s a good starting point.

”A pesticide application tool helps farmers decide when is a good time to spray. “It gives a forecast of wind and rain over the next four days so that a grower that is considering going out and spraying, can get some idea what the conditions are going to be like,” he says.
The form serves as verification that adequate precautions were taken, which can be helpful if a neighbor complains about pesticide drift.
For now, FAWN is predominantly a resource for the agricultural community, but it is trying to make it more attractive to homeowners. Visit fawn.ifas.ufl.edu for private weather station information which is available by clicking My Florida Farm Weather. Ag

The need for local data was recognized around 1996 when the National Weather Service quit doing ag forecasts, leaving growers to rely on data from airports in their region.

by CHERYL ROGERS

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