UF Weather Network Helps Citrus, Vegetables Survive Cold

Chris Eversole

John Jackson (352) 343-4101

TAVARES — Most Florida citrus, strawberry and vegetable growers survived the past week’s chill unscathed with the help of a University of Florida weather service.

The Florida Automated Weather Network (FAWN), developed last year to help farmers around the state get a better handle on freezes and other weather trouble, turned in a stellar performance in its first real test.

The agricultural industry is singing the praises of the service, which updates weather conditions at 16 sites between Gainesville and Homestead every quarter hour and provides reports on the World Wide Web and through a telephone dial-up service.

“Having new information every 15 minutes comes in handy,” said Squire Smith of Winter Haven, who manages 1,750 acres of citrus groves. “In the past, we were guessing at what was happening part of time.”

The frequent updates helped growers turn on irrigation systems to protect their crops at just the right time, said John Jackson, an extension agent with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Improved timing helped save billions of gallons of water and a whole lot of money.”

FAWN has more current information than any other weather service, said Kevin Sharp, a citrus broker in Winter Park. “This is the type of system the Weather Service and The Weather Channel ought to go to.”

FAWN, which has received $250,000 in state funding, was created because of a 1996 federal cutback in weather forecasting. That cutback had disastrous results on Jan. 19, 1997, when a freeze swooped down on Florida and destroyed more than $30 million in crops.

“Temperatures were as low in Homestead as they were in Central Florida, and no one saw the severity of the weather coming,” Jackson said.

This year, farmers tracked the cold snap’s progress with FAWN. They could see exactly how rapidly temperatures were dropping from north to south Florida, said Don Singletary, an Albany, Ga., consultant who advises citrus growers on market conditions.

“What we need to know is how cold it was for how long, and FAWN tells us that,” Singletary said.

This year’s losses represented less than 1 percent of the state’s fruit and vegetable crops, said Bob Blankenship, an economic researcher in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “There was spot damage here and there, but nothing widespread.”

The weather network also helps the Southeast Regional Climate Center, located in Columbia, S.C., collect weather information. “FAWN lets us analyze extreme weather events and report on them to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s World Agricultural Outlook Board,” said Associate Director Milton Brown.

UF and agricultural industry representatives joined together to form FAWN after the 1997 disaster. Participants included the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Citrus Mutual, the Florida Nurserymen and Growers Association, Arapaho Citrus Management Inc., the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham’s office.

The Office of Information Technologies and the Cooperative Extension Service in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences coordinate the network.

“The FAWN team let no obstacle — real or imagined — stand in the way,” said James App, UF’s assistant extension dean. “This model of total commitment to public service contributes to the quality of life for all Floridians.”

State officials agreed, and this fall awarded the FAWN team the highest prize, the Outstanding Work Group Award, in the 1998 Davis Productivity Awards competition.

FAWN has another benefit for coordinator Jackson. Since it’s Web-based, he can operate it from home after normal work hours.

“I’ve been monitoring weather for growers for 25 years,” he said. “I provide recorded telephone messages and talk to growers by radio from 7 a.m. to midnight during cold spells.

“Now, I can work from home in the early morning and at night instead of having to go back into the office all the time,” he said.

The FAWN Web site is http://fawn.ifas.ufl.edu, and the dial-up number is (352) 846-3100.