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Monitoring the future

Photo: This AgWeatherNet station is located in a field of Washington grapes.  (Photo courtesy of Gary Grove).

Washington farmers, in the near future, could be downloading podcasts or check their PDAs for the most up-to-date prediction of frost or plant disease outbreaks. That’s what Gary Grove, the new director of the Washington AgWeatherNet, located in the WSU Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center (IAREC) in Prosser, anticipates, Grove wants to deliver real-time, weather-related information directly into the hands of people who need it.

“The primary goal of AgWeatherNet,” he said, “is to make farming more profitable and, in doing so, strengthen Washington’s economy. Everyone in the state can benefit from that.”

The benefits are expected to grow after the infusion of state money in 2005 and 2006 from the Washington Legislature. In 2005, lawmakers appropriated $300,000 to AgWeatherNet to upgrade about 60 older public agricultural weather stations across the state, as well as add about 60 new ones. In 2006, lawmakers approved approximately $800,000 for operation, service and maintenance costs of the network.

Each station, through a network of computers and radio, gathers and distributes accurate, near-real-time weather data to the IAREC. The data provides growers with crucial information for making decisions about irrigation, frost protection and pest and disease management. A typical weather station measures air temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation, rainfall, wind speed, wind direction, leaf wetness, soil temperature and soil moisture.

With the new funding, stations will be updated with state-of-the-art equipment and, eventually, the AWN 200, a data logger/radio developed by the Center for Precision Agricultural Systems (another division within IAREC) under the oversight of director Fran Pierce. The project is in the late development stage, with a few units being tested in the field.

The funding also allowed for the permanent staffing of director and manager positions as well as an agro-meteorologist faculty position. Grove, hired as director July 1, holds a split appointment as professor of plant pathology and WSU Extension plant pathologist at the IAREC. He has worked extensively with a number of commodity groups and has been with WSU for 20 years.

“Some of our agricultural supporters really went to bat for WSU with the Legislature,” said Grove. “Without their support, we wouldn’t exist as we do today.”

Nor would they be poised for what’s to come. For the short term, the challenge is to get everything up and running — to install or upgrade all 120 weather stations, hire employees and become familiar with new duties. The updated AgWeatherNet website is expected to go live on March 1, 2007. Until then, information is available at http://agweathernet.prosser.wsu.edu.

For the future, Grove foresees potential for AgWeatherNet beyond the agricultural community. For example, stations have been monitoring air quality in the Tri-Cities in collaboration with the Benton County Clean Air Authority. Along the Columbia River, stations are in use for biosecurity in locations where chemical weapons or other hazardous chemicals are stored. In case of a leak, stations equipped with wind sensors can predict, through wind speed and direction, how fast and far the substance could spread.

Still on the drawing board are plans to develop and install a DNA-sensing chip that could sense pathogens in the air — such as powdery mildews that affect wine grapes, hops and tree fruit.

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