New 'farm weather' app helps growers manage irrigation
Florida growers can now use their computers and even smart phones to get real-time local weather data via a "My Florida Farm Weather" initiative developed by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the University of Florida's Florida Automated Weather Network (FAWN) program. The next-generation technology, which includes weather stations located on a farmer's land, provides up-to-the-minute data on key weather variables such as temperature, rainfall, humidity, dew point, wind speed and wind direction. The information is available online and also on Android smart phone devices. An iPhone application will be available in the future. A map of Florida aggregates data collected from weather stations positioned on private agricultural lands across the state."This technology will help Florida agricultural producers more efficiently manage irrigation and the application of nutrients on their lands," Florida Agriculture Commission Adam H. Putnam said in early September in announcing the availability of the new application. "Real-time data will also help producers reduce costs and mitigate their impact on the environment." Since the pilot program was commenced almost a year ago, 79 growers have enrolled in the program and provided feedback on its evolution. In order to participate, producers must be enrolled in the state's agricultural best management practices (BMP) program. One of the key practical benefits of the technology is an improved ability to monitor frost-freeze conditions and increase the efficiency of the use of preventive irrigation. To further enhance those capabilities, historical data on temperature and rainfall are being incorporated into the technology. "The idea is to help growers do a better job of knowing when is the optimum time to turn irrigation systems on and when to turn them off," said FDACS Environmental Specialist Bo Griffin, who has worked with Highlands Soil & Water Conservation District to develop the effort. "That way, you don't run your pumps any longer than necessary. So it was really a water conservation measure that would also assist in setting routine irrigation schedules. Farmers don't want to run their pumps any longer than they have to. And with diesel fuel at $4 a gallon and engines running at about six gallons an hour, there's an economic incentive as well to do this." Susie Bishop, executive director of Highlands Soil & Water Conservation District, which supervised the development of the program under a contract with FDACS, said response to the new technology has been very positive. "As soon as we started promoting the program and doing outreach, we had an immediate response from producers, because they are all regulated according to the amount of water they are allowed to pump," Bishop said. "So because this represented an opportunity for them to monitor their irrigation practices for frost-freeze protection, it was very appealing to them." Other practical benefits of the new technology include the ability to determine when to delay irrigation after rainfall and when to use fungicide or pesticide sprays or fertilizer applications. Related to that is the ability to minimize runoff of fertilizers and other farm chemicals into water. Another important benefit of the new program is its cost-effectiveness. Growers are eligible to receive cost-share funding for one weather station for each 300 acres of land being farmed. FDACS provides 75 percent of the cost of each device up to $5,000, with a total cap of $25,000 per producer. John Barben, vice president of Robert J. Barben, Inc., a major grower of citrus and blueberries headquartered in Avon Park, was among the early adopters of the on-site stations when the program was announced. Barben, who had used existing FAWN weather station data for years, has deployed three of the stations on his land. Doing so has allowed him to monitor more accurate frost-freeze data. "One of the three FAWN stations in our area sits on top of a hill in Highlands County and it will be about 10 degrees warmer than our [nearby] cold location," Barben said. "So that was the reason we [adopted this new technology]. We wanted to be able to get a better indication on a cold night of what was going on in our area. And that meant putting a weather station right on our property." Barben also cited an improved ability to control the release of nitrates into ground water and efficiently manage the use of irrigation water as his motivations for signing on to use the new stations. Similar kinds of technology have been available for years, Barben said. But the FDACS/UF innovation is to use a cost-share provision to reduce the cost. "The real benefits," he said, "are that we save water. We don't leech as many chemicals into the soil. And we don't have runoff of chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers into our lakes and streams. So it's a win-win for everybody."