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Webinar launched on weather, agriculture to help farmers learn

Amy G. Hadachek
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Right on the heels of a record attendance of 700 meteorologists attending the recent National Weather Association (NWA) annual conference in Oklahoma City, Okla., in late fall 2015, the NWA has launched a widely-heralded series of monthly webinars throughout 2016. During its webinar about weather and agriculture last month, a dozen panelists including meteorologists and farmers interacted live; increasing public awareness about the need for more micro-scale forecasts for the people who grow our food. Within 24 hours, more than 300 people viewed the webinar via YouTube.

“If the ag industry doesn’t increase current agricultural output by 75 percent by year 2050, then based on population trends, we aren’t going to be able to feed the populace,” said panelist Tim Marquis, meteorologist at Warning Decision Technologies.

It’s estimated the agriculture industry will need to feed nine billion people by the year 2050, according to a United Nations World Population Prospects report. A farmer who fed 19 people in 1940 is now feeding 155 people.

Several meteorologists including Marquis, joined webinar co-hosts meteorologist Mike Mogil of How the Weatherworks and meteorologist Amy Gardner Hadachek to directly respond to farmers and explain how updated weather computer models and agriculture weather products benefit farmers.

“We know that weather is a very important topic for farmers, and it was good to hear directly from farmers about their specific weather forecast needs on this webinar.”

Three farmers from Kansas, Florida and Minnesota expressed their forecasting frustrations to the meteorologists.

“Every morning before I go out, I always check the forecast because that has a lot to do with what I’m going to do that day. When I’m putting up alfalfa or prairie hay, you cut it, put it down in a windrow, and two days later, you bale it. A lot of times I look at the forecast and they say, ‘No chance of rain,’ so I’ll put hay down, but unfortunately we might get moisture before I can get it baled, so that’s a frustration,” said fourth-generation farmer and rancher Larry Hadachek, of Cuba, Kan. “Then, there are forecasts with an 80 percent chance of rain, but nothing happens.”

Larry Hadachek also described the complications weather can cause when spraying crops.

Dale Mohler, AccuWeather meteorologist, responded to his concerns. Mohler said he grew up on a farm and understands these complications.

“I wish the forecasts were 100-percent, but they’re not. Some of the small-scale weather systems are small enough that they will sometimes, slip between the cracks; subsequently causing rain in what began as a 10-percent forecast,” he explained. “I think, as meteorologists, one of the ways we can make up for this is to hear directly from more farmers. Currently, there isn’t a lot of farm consulting being done.”

Concerning the weather computer models, Mohler noted the European model is still consistent. The American model has made strides and is catching up.

Freezes are the key concern in Florida’s citrus country, and farmer Pete Spyke, who grows Florida oranges, grapefruits and tangerines at Spyke’s Grove in David, Fla., uses weather data to help grow his perennial crop, but also to learn what happened in the past.

“Predicting weather in Florida is what makes forecasters old and gray, because we’re surrounded by water. We’re a tropical environment most of the time, except when an arctic airmass comes down. So, knowing about freezes and even a degree here and there in an hour, makes a difference in the way we cold-protect with water and irrigation,” Spyke said. Marquis explained that freeze events are hard to predict because that requires high-resolution, gridded data, but many growers don’t have weather stations close enough to them to collect data relevant to their location. To compensate, forecasters use short-term freeze models.

Marquis suggested growers and agronomists call and talk to a meteorologist, who can advise where frost and precipitation is more likely to occur in the next few hours.

As the first farmer to sign up and use the DTN/Agriculture Weather Station, farmer Mark Nowak of Wells, Minn., said the Ag Weather Station is one of his most used pieces of farming equipment.

“Especially in the growing season, I look at my weather station every day, and in the summertime, it calculates and monitors growing degree units,” he said. “Up here in corn and soybean country, I can pull the 30-year normal for the growing degree units from our University of Minnesota experiment station just 30-miles from here, and it helps me monitor the progress of the crop.”

Nowak was able to use the data he gathered to predict his yield, so he went to the elevator before his harvest and told them he’d have bushels he couldn’t store at home. He could predict when he’d harvest within several days because of the data.

Nikki Work, editor of The Fence Post, was a panelist on the webinar. She said weather impacts people within every story in the magazine.

“I hear it all the time, and we cover weather in such a huge variety of ways,” Work said. “We see how important weather is — that it can be a benefit as well as a detriment. For instance, after the September 2013 devastating Colorado floods, ironically, our wheat farmers had record-breaking yields, so it’s interesting to see how even after a terrible weather event, farmers have the potential to make their crops and their yields be everything they need. There are few topics as important to our farmers as weather.”

This ag weather webinar was birthed in part, after Mogil and Hadachek co-authored the Weatherwise Magazine story, “Forecasts For Farmers; Satisfying A Hunger For Reliable Weather Information” in the January/February 2016 issue.

After participating in the hour-long webinar, NWA meteorologists emphasized it’s becoming more crucial to have improved forecasts and on a smaller level, since agriculture and other industries like construction and manufacturing rely so much on forecasts.

“We know that weather is a very important topic for farmers, and it was good to hear directly from farmers about their specific weather forecast needs on this webinar,” NWA Executive Director Janice Bunting said. “As meteorologists, we know that the more data we have going into the computer models, the better the models will be, as long as that data is quality controlled. So, furthering improvement and more implementation of (networks of observing stations) and increasing weather stations across the country would be very beneficial to modeling, forecasters and people who use weather data.” ❖




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