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Weather System is the PAWS That Helps Growers Make Profit

Phill Fossum frequently connects his computer to the Internet, signs on to a Washington State University home page on the World Wide Web, downloads weather data to his computer, puts it in an Excel spread sheet and analyzes it to help him make frost and insect and disease control management decisions for 400 acres of orchards in the Gleed area northwest of Yakima.

The sophisticated weather data is from WSU’s Public Agriculture Weather System — PAWS for short. The system currently has 58 weather data recording stations, mostly in central Washington.

PAWS was created in 1988 by Thomas Ley, a WSU Cooperative Extension irrigation engineer. Ley says it was the first true real-time weather station network in the nation.

Fossum, 36 neighboring orchardists and five warehouses felt so strongly about having local data available on the PAWS system that they underwrote installation of a station in their area. That cost them initially about $5,300 plus a $400 annual maintenance fee.

Due to WSU funding cutbacks, they now also pay a new $130 annual subscription fee to access PAWS data via the Internet or through direct phone line and modem access. The system currently has 161 subscribers.

The Gleed station became operational in June 1994. Area orchardists’ main interest in having their own PAWS station was for data to help them make frost protection decisions and to more accurately predict scab, blight and codling moth infection periods.

When time is critical, as it often is in orchard management, Fossum says Gleed area growers now can call up PAWS data on the Internet. “I think it pays off because it gives the growers who wish to access it, real-time information, said Fossum.

“Within minutes you can decide to roll the sprayers or not roll the sprayers.” Big bucks hang on the decision. Saving an unnecessary spray is good for the bottom line, both at the bank and in the environment, but saving a crop or trees from damage by making a critical spraying is just as important, if not even more critical.

Although current conditions can be still can be accessed free by voice phone, Fossum prefers the Internet because it’s a local telephone call and he can access the system’s historical data banks and import it into his spreadsheet.

Although he is a medium size grower, he doesn’t think the size of an orchardist’s operation makes any difference in whether he should subscribe to PAWS. Fossum believes the $130-a-year subscription fee for PAWS is a good investment for orchardists who run their own spray programs and manage aggressively for top-quality fruit.

“It’s probably more important for a small grower who does his own field work (to subscribe to PAWS),” Fossum says. A field man may visit an orchard every 14 days. PAWS data is updated every 15 minutes and is available whenever an orchardist needs it, and at a time that is convenient to him.

“I think it’s a terrific tool for the agricultural community in the State of Washington,” Fossum said. “I hope that WSU is financially able to keep it going. It’s certainly less expensive than going out and buying your own weather station. You have essentially a $5,000 weather station sitting right in your own neighborhood.”

Mary Hattendorf, who has a doctorate in agricultural climatology, took over coordination of the system earlier this year when Ley resigned.

PAWS currently has two main seasons of heavy use. During late winter and early spring, the system is used extensively to guide frost protection decisions. “We’re seeing PAWS getting pretty heavily into frost protection use in the last week or two of March through the end of April,” Hattendorf says. “When it starts warming up, insect and disease problems bring both producers and scientists to PAWS in large numbers.”

Many people outside agriculture also rely on PAWS data, including Tri-Cities television stations and the Benton County Clean Air Authority. Authorities use PAWS data to help regulate activities on the Hanford Atomic Works reservation. Cities, port districts and industries that have evaporation ponds to treat processing or waste water use PAWS data to manage their systems.

Agricultural consultants also subscribe. Hattendorf says many growers rely on private companies for weather forecasting, since the weather bureau quit making special forecasts for agriculture, about a year ago.

Like a growing number of WSU scientists, Tim Smith, WSU Cooperative Extension agent for the Wenatchee area, relies on PAWS data in his work. “I utilize the PAWS system to stay up and running on the conditions across the whole orchard region of eastern Washington,” Smith says. He runs PAWS data through computerized insect and disease models, summarizes the results and posts it on the PAWS web site, and on his web site for Chelan and Douglas counties. It also provides the basis for reports that he faxes to field men for packing houses, chemical companies, pest managers and other consultants who use the information in their work with growers.

“A lot of growers are helped by PAWS even though they might not know it,” Smith says.

“The PAWS system is the underpinning of our disease model advisory system. A few years ago temperature recordings at the WSU-Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee were used to advise people throughout whole region. Now, Smith feeds data from 20 PAWS sites into his models to make more precise predictions.

Smith says there is a synergistic effect between PAWS and developing computer models for orchardists. PAWS data is helping scientists create better computer models, which in turn make PAWS data even more valuable to orchardists. “Past models were relatively crude,” he says. “Now they are getting a whole lot more sophisticated and they’re going to get even better.”

Smith and other scientists are working to automate insect and disease models.

Smith urges orchardists to rely on PAWS for weather data. Many now rely on their own measurements, but therein lie many problems. “Self developed data has problems,” Smith says. “You can measure temperature,” Smith tells orchardists, “but is it the same way that we have developed the models?” If not, the models may not be accurate.

Smith’s use of PAWS data paid off big this spring for many Washington pear producers, by helping prevent fire blight infestations. Fire blight is the worst disease that can hit pear trees. It is a bacterial disease that occurs when abnormally warm weather during bloom is followed by rain, or even a heavy dew. Heavily damaged trees must be severely pruned or even destroyed. A grower can lose an entire orchard.

The only way to avoid infections is to spray just before or just after it rains. Computer models are taking a lot of guess work out of spraying decisions. Smith’s models can’t tell individual growers whether they should spray, but they can tell them when they should be in their orchards closely monitoring conditions.

His fire blight model enabled him to warn growers on May 10 that conditions would be prime for fire blight. On May 12th Smith posted warnings on the PAWS web site. As predicted, on the night of May 14th and the morning of the 15th it rained. “We just had a horrible fire blight infection period,” Smith said.

Warned, some orchardists sprayed at the correct time and had much less fire blight than those who didn’t.

Some growers make their own forecasts, based on PAWS data. For those who can’t, or don’t want to, Smith makes his available as quickly as possible. “I’m forever posting notices on PAWS (web site). When something big is happening, I’ll interpret it and put it out there.

“When weather triggers disease I can’t answer all the phone calls,” Smith says. “But if I can advise people by the thousands by electronic means that works a whole lot better. In 10 minutes I can write up a warning and post it on PAWS.”

PAWS also helps improve Integrated Pest Management practices. Smith gets tremendous industry support for his insect management models. “If I don’t know when the first moth is caught in the Tri-Cities I can’t run a model and tell people what’s going on,” he says. “Growers call me and give me information on what’s happening in their orchards.” This helps him generate the data that enables growers throughout the region to make good pest management decisions.

Use of PAWS data to manage irrigation isn’t as accepted by orchardists as it is by field crop producers, but Robert Evans, WSU-Prosser, irrigation engineer, believes orchardists one day will exploit this use, too, especially as more computer models are developed for various aspects of farming. Many crop-related computer models depend on temperature and humidity. Irrigation scheduling also becomes more critical with heightened concerns about nitrate contamination and pesticides in ground water. We want to be able to reduce that and that’s a climate based function, too.

Currently wine grape and potato growers are among the leading users of PAWS data to help schedule irrigation, to control the quality of their crops.

Fruit quality, environmental concerns and irrigation economics may lead orchardists to greater use of PAWS data in their irrigation decisions. “Irrigation is an economic incentive,” Evans says. “Over or under irrigation can have a big impact on quality. Pumping costs also are becoming more important. “You can very quickly pay for a $130 subscription to PAWS,” Evans tells producers.

Growers who pump from the Columbia or Snake Rivers can pay $80-120 per acre foot for water. “If you can reduce a few inches here and a few inches there, it pencils out pretty quickly,” Evans says. Orchardists who irrigate from canals typically pay $20-$40 per acre foot and then pay another $5 or so to pressurize it.

“The whole area of farming is turning more and more into a management business type enterprise. Farmers who are good managers are going to be around 20 years from now. PAWS data and computer models are just tools to better help their management.”

In March, 1997, WSU began charging people who access PAWS data via subscription to access the Internet web page, or by direct modem. A tiered subscription rate goes from $130 a year for an individual grower to $1,065 for a corporate subscription. A corporate subscriber is one who uses PAWS data or summaries to make decisions for clientele.

Over $588,000 of public and private funds have been invested in PAWS for equipment, operations, maintenance and education and demonstration programs. Tight budgets and changing philosophies are behind the move to fees for full access to PAWS. Harry Burcalow, associate dean for WSU Cooperative Extension, says budget constraints have resulted in cuts in the PAWS operating budget. It received $31,000 in operating funds in fiscal year 1995, $23,000 in FY 1996 and $12,000 in FY 1997. It has been allocated $12,000 again for FY 1998.

“Cooperative Extension will continue to provide funds for the specialist for PAWS, as part of our program,” Burcalow said, “but user fees will be necessary to cover the cost of operations and maintenance.”

Burcalow said this is similar to extension’s charge of fees for meeting expenses and sale of publications.

Subscribers accessing the web page can download raw data, import it into their own spreadsheets, or other specific software, and manipulate it in a variety of ways. Hattendorf says subscribers who have computers and modems, but don’t use the World Wide Web, can modem in through a bulletin board system.

They can telephone in on a free 800 number. These calls are routed through modems recently upgraded to operate at speeds up to 33.6 kilobytes per minute. “We’re much faster and much friendlier,” Hattendorf says. Callers also may request packets of data be printed and mailed to them, at a cost of $5 per database accessed.

Non-subscribers can access data through the PAWS toll-free digital voice system. Although Ley no longer is with WSU, his voice answers these calls and walks callers through menu choices. They must use a touch-tone phone. These callers can get only current data, which is updated hourly.

However, Hattendorf urges clients to use the web site if they can because it provides the highest level of service. In the future, the system will be even more valuable and more user-friendly.

“We’re in the process of upgrading system software to make it more stable, faster, and more accessible, and we’re developing more graphics for the web site,” Hattendorf says. In addition, she’s trying to add other relevant data and models from as many researchers and extension specialists as possible.

To Access PAWS Data:

PAWS Web Site

Direct Modem
1 (888) 679-7075
1 (888) 679-7076
1 (888) 679-7077
1 (888) 679-7078

Voice Phone
1 (888) 679-7079

To Subscribe
Call Hattendorf at (509) 786-9219 or Todd Elliott, (509) 786-9367

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