Before the advent of computer satellite tracking equipment, farmers relied on prognostics, such as candles, weather vanes, the color of the sky, and the fabled Farmers’ Almanac, to make informed planting decisions.

Even animals – cows in respite to forecast rain and a groundhog capable of foretelling winter’s duration – continue to play time-honored roles in weather lore.

The reality is that weather information drives business decisions by helping producers schedule plantings, time fertilizer applications, manage pests and diseases, and prepare for field work and harvests.

Now, thanks to a new collaboration between the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and weather-intelligence provider WeatherSTEM, local forecasting technologies around the state are helping farmers prepare for and weather the storm. This initiative is part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ new SmartFarm Innovation Network.

“This is one of the first steps in realizing the Smart Farm Innovation Network vision,” said Saied Mostaghimi, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the college and director of VAES. “Weather information has tremendous impact on what we do in agriculture. It impacts the water needs of plants and can determine the potential for plant disease and disease transmission from one location to another. This is a set of weather stations networked together so experts can look both locally and throughout the state to see what’s going on.”

Each of the 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, in addition to the Urban Horticulture and Turf Grass Centers in Blacksburg, have installed on-site WeatherSTEM weather monitoring systems to measure wind speed and direction, precipitation, temperature, humidity, and solar radiation. In addition, high-resolution cameras connected to the cloud record real-time imagery of current conditions and can provide time-lapse visuals of weather patterns.

“The WeatherSTEM portal gives our staff and faculty instant access to real-time, site-specific weather conditions at our AREC that we haven’t had in the past,” said David Langston, director of the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “This type of weather information is critical to planning field research activities and for collecting weather data over the growing season to help us understand how weather affects the results of our research.”

Data from the monitoring devices is transmitted to the WeatherLink Cloud, where it is available for immediate viewing on the AREC WeatherSTEM websites and on a mobile app that is downloadable from the website. Users can also sign up for live updates via text, all free of charge. As a result, producers, residents, researchers, and members of the public can access up-to-the-minute weather information, including sky cam images, and receive weather alerts about threats, such as severe weather, thunderstorms, and lightning, including when these phenomena are coming and how far away they are.

Historic weather data is also stored for research and analysis. This information could guide researchers and producers in identifying future weather patterns and trends.

“The vision is that as we collect more information, we will develop our predictive capabilities to issue advisories to producers based on patterns and trends,” Mostaghimi said.

The technology, developed by Dyacon, also includes a self-emptying rain collector, ultraviolet sensors, and a solar panel as a power source. Soil sensors measure temperature and moisture at some of the ARECs.

“As we install more sensors, such as those that measure moisture in soils, we will be able to issue specific advisories about drought and other relevant conditions,” Mostaghimi said. “You could install any sensors as they emerge in the marketplace at any of the sites based on the needs of AREC staff, faculty, students, and local stakeholders.”

The AREC WeatherSTEM websites also display wind chill, dewpoint, the date of the last rain, and cloud cover information, along with a five-day forecast and links to updates from Weather Underground and The Weather Channel LIVE. Historical data, information on the sun, moon, and planets, and information on nearby lightning are also available at the click of a mouse.

“Until now, we have relied on data collected over a 24-hour period,” Langston said. “Once crop and pest models are incorporated into the system, growers can use this information to make more timely and accurate management decisions than would have been possible before. The WeatherSTEM interface enables the user to access information simply and easily, which is a big advantage over previous delivery platforms.”

In keeping with the SmartFarm Innovation Network vision, the ARECS can compare data sets with each other and with other WeatherSTEM sites in order to understand weather patterns across the state and region, making this a true technology network.

“For researchers who are involved in weather conditions and patterns through computer-simulated modeling, multiple data sources from various locations in the state are critical to understanding those patterns,” Mostaghimi said.

Mostaghimi is also excited to partner with the College of Natural Resources and Environment in a collaboration designed to engage meteorology students while touching on the university’s Beyond Boundaries initiative to provide experiential opportunities for students. The students will be given access to the WeatherSTEM sites and will also be involved in the installation and calibration of sensors and other equipment.

The goal for this experiential learning opportunity is to bring students out of the classroom and connect them to the world in which they live and will one day work. Knowledge gleaned from the AREC weather stations will aid them in their meteorological studies and ensure that the SmartFarm Innovation Network technologies are benefiting others throughout the university.

—      Written by Amy Painter

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