Building tools for tech-savvy farmers
by Catie Joyce-Bulay
“I just continually bring myself into the farmer’s shoes,” said Dr. Lily Calderwood, UMaine Cooperative Extension wild blueberry specialist. “I think ‘Okay, if I were in the field, what’s going to make sense to me? I need quick, very accurate, very clear information. I don’t have time for a whole bunch of science jargon.’”
That sums up the purpose of an ongoing project co-led by researchers at the UMaine Cooperative Extension and the Climate Change Institute in collaboration with Maine farmers. The project’s goal was to listen to farmer needs around weather information and farm management decision support tools in order to provide them with the best and most user-friendly tools.
Calderwood, along with Glen Koehler and Dr. Sean Birkel, gave a talk on the topic for the Sen. George J. Mitchell Institute for Sustainability Solutions, who provided a seed grant for the project.
“We’re entering a world where farmers really are more tech-savvy,” said Calderwood, who is an assistant professor of horticulture at UMaine.
The project came about through discussions with the Maine Climate and Ag Network and had three objectives:
1) Better understand how and when farmers use weather data in pest and crop management
2) Identify farmer top priorities for improvements to weather information, preferred ways to receive weather information and major pests and timing of pest management
3) Identify next steps to bring more weather tools to growers
They looked at three groups of farmers – wild blueberry, apple and mixed vegetable growers, both conventional and organic.
Begun in 2019, the project first surveyed 165 Maine farmers, then created an 18-person focus group from interested survey participants.
One of the questions they wanted to know was where farmers check the weather. The majority of the farmers who participated in the study check the NOAA/National Weather Service, while many still check the weather on TV. Some check phone apps, Weather Underground and AccuWeather. Some use the two online tools that Extension created – AgriNET, which is for wild blueberry growers, and Ag-Radar, for apple growers.
What pest and crop decision support tools do Maine farmers currently use? They discovered most did not use any. Some used AgriNET, Ag-Radar or Cornell’s Network for Environment and Weather Applications (NEWA) and the WBB hotline, while a few used a mix of personal weather stations, newsletters, growing degree day models or communication with Extension specialists.
The majority of the surveyed farmers did not use weather-based crop or pest management tools, but most were interested in using them.
When asked about the most important farm management decision that could be made easier and more accurate by using one of these tools, 40% of the farmers said spraying. Planting dates at 17% and harvest dates at 14% were the next most important. Other uses with some interest included when to irrigate and cover, when to expect infection and infestation, when to thin or prune and when to enter the field in the spring, along with economics.
When looking at what factors impact these decisions the most, 41% said frost, 19% rain and 14% wind. Other lesser important factors to survey participants included climate change, soil moisture, temperature (including soil temperature), accuracy and drought, all ranging from 3% – 5%.
Crop-specific tools like AgriNET and Ag-Radar can help farmers navigate these decisions by providing data on many of these factors.
“What I found was that I was constantly on the phone talking about the weather because that’s what drives our decision-making,” said Glen Koehler, associate scientist of IPM at UMaine Cooperative Extension, who works frequently with apple and other tree growers. “And that’s how Ag-Radar got started [in 1997].”
Ag-Radar is a twice-daily updated tool to manage pests for apple growers in Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. It gives information based on weather models about when the need for protection from diseases, insects and mites begins and ends, potential severity, re-spray dates and key monitoring dates.
“Models are great,” said Koehler. “But they do not replace looking at the real world and making your decisions based on that. Models are tools to help growers make better decisions.”
AgEye Weather is another useful tool for farmers. AgEye is a collaboration with the UMaine Climate Change Institute. Sean Birkel, Maine’s state climatologist, created AgEye by taking NOAA-gridded weather data and converting it into useful data for farmers in the form of easy-to-use maps, spreadsheets and graphs.
These data get sent to farmers in twice-daily emails. Birkel is in the process of developing an interactive website for it. Birkel showed examples of the data it provides farmers, including hourly temperatures, dew point temperatures, surface temperatures and soil temperatures at two and 10 inches, information on precipitation, relative humidity, wind and other statistics.
Extension plans to keep the project going and continue to deliver tools to farmers and use farmer feedback to make the tools easier to use and more accessible.
“I really want to thank the farmers who participated in this project,” said Calderwood. “They are really the experts. They are ready for the next century of challenges. Farming is especially challenging, especially regarding the weather. They are truly at the mercy of the weather and we really appreciate their time and our relationship with them.”
To view the full webinar, visit umaine.edu/mitchellcenter.