ORONO, Maine — With the development of radar during World War II as part of an enemy aircraft detection system, forecasting approaching weather systems was added as a powerful remote sensing device, which allowed meteorologists to improve the accuracy of long-range weather forecasts.
Orbital earth observing/weather satellites, GPS and other developing technologies have added to a complex array of devices that are now providing farmers with location specific data that can be used for purposes of irrigation, fertilizer application and as part of an integrated pest management system, said Glen Koehler, University of Maine Cooperative Extension IMP specialist. Koehler is the force behind the development of AgEye Weather, which is now being tested by 80 apple growers throughout New England.
“The National Weather Service has gone to the grid,” said Koehler, IPM associate scientist specializing in tree fruits, primarily apples. “They take all their weather data from satellites and from a bunch of ground stations (producing) gazillions of data bits coming in by the second. They take all that and throw it into these supercomputers and then all that data is projected onto a grid. That’s what the National Weather Service uses for all of their forecasts.”
For years, UMaine Extension purchased the data from SkyBit, a pest and weather forecasting system. After 30 years of operation, SkyBit was sold to another company, which decided to not to offer its services, Koehler said.
Koehler, who started using SkyBit in the 1990s, was one of the earliest users.
Koehler said a grad student, about 30 to 35 years ago, developed the first weather grid model, adding, “To me, that’s like Nobel Prize stuff.”
The technology developed for SkyBit was able “to do this service where you have site specific weather forecasting.”
“You give them your latitude and longitude and they pull the weather for your spot on the globe, that’s forecast and observation,” Koehler said. “You can look at weather data till the cows come home on the web. What is really hard to get is this stuff you can bring into your system in a digestible format and then do analysis on. That’s what I was getting on SkyBit.”
Currently, Koehler is taking pages of data points such as apparent temperatures, wind speeds, cloud cover percentages, soil temperature and more and plugging it into forecasting models.
“The grid we use is 1.5 miles,” Koeher said. “So, if you have a farm here that’s a half-mile from another farm, they’re probably in the same grid. If they’re 10 miles apart, they’re going to be in five cells. We’re doing this at 80 (apple orchard) sites now. We haven’t started charging for the report, we’re still in the free trial period.”
The 80 orchards are located throughout Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Brunswick, Canada.
AgEye service extends a bit west of the Mississippi River. The radar ranges from 50 to 30 degrees latitude — a little north of Toronto, Canada, down to the top of Florida and the Gulf Coast. Koehler said the system has the ability to go farther — 60 degrees west latitude to over 95 degrees.
“The reason why we don’t go into the Rockies is because of Idaho and all these different topographies,” Koehler said. “We had a Skybit customer in Arizona contact us about obtaining service, but we said no. I’m still not sure we did the right thing, but we didn’t want to go that far because we have enough on our hands right now. But, the entire East is a contiguous piece.”
The service has only been operating for a couple of months. The plan is to begin launching the service to the public in the near future. Koehler said the actual launch date may be in a month or more.
“When this weather data comes in, we use automated scripts (to process the forecast models). Twice a day, computers crunch the numbers, populate everything, and automatically save it to the web,” Koehler said. “So each site goes on the web where they have access to all the products coming out.”
For now, the forecasting system is limited to apples but Koehler said plans are to expand it to other fruits. He is working on a model for strawberries, raspberries and low bush blueberries. Eventually, it may provide a “comfort cow index,” or information for vegetables, grains and more.
Matt Pellerin, manager of Treworgy Family Orchards, in Levant, located about 30 minutes west of Bangor, said being part of the AgEye Weather apple sites test locations provides another tool in predicting potential apple disease problems, such as apple scab infection forecasts.
The farm, an agritourism and diversified farm, grows standard apple varieties for pick-your-own customers and for sale through its farm stand. Besides apples, the farm raises strawberries, raspberries, high bush blueberries, pumpkins and Christmas trees. Last year, its corn maze was rated number one by USA Today.
“We’ve been using ag radar since at least 2008,” Pellerin said. “For a long time I would just use the closest ag radar site — sometimes SkyBit — but it was just a straight aggregator. This year, they (AgEye Weather) have a site actually set up on the farm. We can track rainfall that has happened. It gives me a pretty accurate forecast going forward. It really ties that in with phenological development (of apples) and the scab stages.”
Pellerin said it provides a chart which he can consult to determine if any “big scab events are likely and say ‘All right, I’m gonna spray because a big one is coming.’”
For more information on AgEye Weather, visit https://extension.umaine.edu/ipm/apple/ag-radar-apple-sites/.