Sensors, software send ag alerts to farmer phones

YAKIMA -- A marriage between agriculture research and software development is putting critical weather information at a farmer's fingertips.

A Yakima software firm, in cooperation with Washington State University's extensive weather monitoring network, is testing a system that will deliver weather and disease data to a farmer's cell phone.

Another new feature allows farmers who use mobile devices equipped with a web browser to access weather data from the network while in the field.

Officials say the new system is another example of employing technology to help farmers produce healthy crops, something the industry has been seeking for years.

"This is an opportunity to push some new technology out to see if people will adopt it," said Jim Doornink, a Parker Heights fruit grower and chairman of the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Commission. "Given the right types of alerts, I think there is some real value there."

The goal is to allow farmers in Eastern Washington to customize weather information from specific stations in their neighborhood so they get detailed updates about changes in temperature, wind and moisture.

Based on the profile set up by an individual farmer, the system will provide mobile alerts on disease development, frost threats and wind speeds for spraying via text message, e-mail or synthesized voice.

Armed with the information, farmers can react more quickly to frost or possible disease outbreaks, potentially reducing the threat of crop loss or damage.

Eventually, the alerts could be transmitted in Spanish for farm managers and supervisors for whom Spanish is their primary language.

William Corsi of Prosser, technical coordinator for AgWeatherNet, the agricultural weather network, said the new technologies allow farmers to be more efficient and more mobile. Instead of relying on a desktop or laptop computer at home, they should be able to get what they need from their phones and without having to check conditions out in the field.

"We are trying to find the best ways to get extension interacting with the user base," Corsi said. "We realized our clientele is mobile, they are out and about working. We are trying to meet their needs the best way we can."

The company offering the alerts is 4Quarters of Yakima, a software development firm that has worked with WSU researchers in the past on models for the wine grape industry.

The firm is set up to receive a direct data feed from the agricultural weather network.

Les Flue, vice president of products for 4Quarters, said the company is testing the service, known as AgAlertz, this year at no charge so producers can try it to see if it is usable for their operation.

Flue said the system will likely be in test mode through this growing season. Farmers can visit the website and set up the parameters for which they wish to be notified.

"We are testing the market to see how it is received. It won't be until after this growing season that we will put together a final business model," he said.

So far, 95 farmers have signed up for the alerts.

The mobile alert service is tapping information from the WSU weather network, which is composed of 133 stations stretching from Asotin County in far southeast Washington to Whatcom County in the far northwest.

The heaviest concentration of weather stations is planted through Central Washington's intensive irrigated farms and orchards, situated from northern Benton County to Okanogan County, the heart of tree fruit, grape and hop production.

Funding for the network comes from a variety of sources, including the tree fruit research commission, public tax revenue and private agriculture industry groups.

Every 15 minutes, each station transmits weather data to WSU's research center,northwest of Prosser, everything from current temperature, dew point, relative humidity to soil temperature.

The system also includes information on disease models, primarily hop powdery mildew and grape powdery mildew.

Gary Grove, a plant pathologist at the WSU research center in Prosser and director of the WSU weather network, calls the mobile phone alerts a logical next step in aiding farmers.

Grove said AgAlertz technology should be particularly useful to growers concerned with the potential for frost damage or those whose decisions include wind speed and direction as factors.

Other companies are using the WSU agriculture network information. One of them is Clearwest, the Wenatchee-based firm that provides spring frost forecasts for fruit growers.

WSU is interested in working with other softwarefirms that would like to develop similar products for growers.

"We are equal opportunity. We actually provide data feeds to several companies," Grove said. "What we are trying to do is foster business."

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