Farming Magazine - August, 2012

FEATURES

From Sky to Soil

Connecting weather and technology for farming success
By J.F. Pirro

Photo by Bob M. Montgomery Images, www.bmmimages.com.

Let's face it: agriculture always seems to be on the brink of some sort of failure. For Joe Russo, president of ZedX, Inc., and lots of us, weathering the weather is the leading variable between success and failure. Defeating the weather can prevent a disaster.

As fast as a weather system can move in, technology moves just as fast. The two have more in common than what a first glance reveals.

"IT [information technology] is ideal for the growing industry," Russo says.

His company, based in Bellefonte, Pa., is a leading integrated IT solution provider for the precision agriculture industry and a front-runner in providing growers with site-specific weather predictions for their farms and orchards. Services include weather-based interpretive summaries that unveil historical and forecasted pest information that helps avert disease infection and zeros in on optimum control times several days before an actual event. It's technology that leads to decision-making across the agricultural food chain.

Farmers, Russo says, are tolerant of fallibility in their fields and in the technology field, and have a unique ability to soldier on. Technology simply offers producers more machines - albeit different machines - to manipulate in their own best interest.

"Yes, more machines," says Tom Garretson of Garretson Orchards in Aspers, Pa., which features 300 acres of 10 varieties of apples and has been using ZedX weather technology products for a decade. "The machines get more complicated, but they also make it easier as long as you can understand the information - and these products do that."

Three different weather service forecast products give Garretson, who took over the family orchard from his father in 2001, an ability to control the uncontrollable - weather. "You have certain windows where you can be effective," he says. "This has helped us predict and plan our work."


Accumulated Degree Day Departure from Average map.
Provided by ZedX, Inc.

Charting a path

Now, celebrating its 25th year, ZedX has helped spawn weather application modeling, or model-assisted weather forecast interpretation. Russo says it's "nothing short of a revolution."

No matter what technology's speed, for complex projects he's stuck to a consistent pyramid-based paradigm. At the bottom, there's data, algorithms (processing and interpretation of data), then integration with real-life agricultural application and dissemination, all to help with what Russo calls a complex product - crops.

In essence, ZedX provides "a virtual version" of the old-time print and radio programs that went out (and still do in some areas) regionally to farmers about what to look for daily, but the technology allows for more holistic integration and differentiation, all designed to make farmers more productive, profitable and sustainable.

"Everyone wants that, but now there's an information basis to do it," Russo says. "We offer the opportunity to think through scenarios of risk. We give [growers] the pieces, but they still put it all together."


Up-to-the moment weather maps can make the difference between crop loss and success.
Provided by ZedX, Inc.

Commercially, ZedX works through third-party organizations, cooperatives, extension offices and government agencies. It also works privately, with soil laboratories or any other entity that engages with growers. In its early years, ZedX did direct research work with farmers, and more recently with growers through university-sponsored projects. Services include CropForecaster (2009) and Irrigation Scheduler (2008) before it. Its AgFleet line involves over 15 million acres of U.S. agriculture, mostly grains - corn, soybean, wheat, cotton, rice.

Currently, the company is working with a group of vegetable growers in southern Florida to develop smartphones for their use. In the fall, ZedX is starting a program with Penn State University, where Russo was once an assistant professor in agricultural climatology, to develop protocol for training young ag majors to bridge the gap between science, technology and agriculture, a given when he was a student with far less technology. A reality check is often needed too. The virtual world doesn't immediately translate into a practical one in farming. In a video game, for example, things that die often come back to life - but a field of crops that dies is dead for good.

A growing field

In the end, Russo says a grower wants processed data and a model of outcomes. They want "time, space and the probability of an event happening"; for instance, a disease alert with a week to spare and an 80 percent chance of occurring.

Garretson, who has trusted Russo for 18 years, dating to his days as a crop consultant, doesn't think technology ever will, or should, replace scouting your own fields. The technology, he says, "just makes you better" and saves money. It keeps you from making bigger mistakes. "You're perfect when you start each season, but then you're going to make mistakes," he says. "This helps you to minimize those mistakes."

The three products that he subscribes to from ZedX, all of which arrive daily via email (and at one time by fax) by 5:30 a.m. in three separate one-page summary sheets, take five minutes to interpret. He reads them either on his laptop or his iPad if he's in his pickup. "In all aspects, we're finding it pays not to be tethered to the office," says Garretson.

Since the data can be saved, the services also create records, an added bonus, even to feed lobbyists to combat ever-increasing regulatory measures. The data can provide validation, particularly for orchards working with chemicals.

Also, Garretson still subscribes to traditional weather services like AccuWeather, and he checks radar to see when storm systems are moving in, so he can radio crews. Safety comes first. ZedX's services allow him to see the "bigger picture of weather."

His three ZedX site-specific electronic weather data products come from SkyBit, Inc., an early |'90s breakthrough joint venture between ZedX, Inc. and affiliate Meso, Inc., based in Troy, N.Y. Though SkyBit's E-Weather Service has remained largely unchanged in cost and function, next year it too will begin transforming to smartphone configuration and other wireless, hand-held personal digital assistants (PDAs), the newest technological wave that will essentially give growers portable offices. "The tools allow for mobility," Russo says.

Garretson subscribes to a general forecast and data summary that he mostly analyzes for spraying index figures, ranging from zero to a perfect 10 based on weather conditions two days into the future. He opts in on the service's apple disease forecast, targeted at conditions for apple scab, fire blight and sooty blotch. A third report keeps him abreast of six different insects that could ravage his apple crop. After he sets pheromone traps in early April and nabs the first sustainable flight of moths, he communicates with SkyBit, and they start studying models to ensure accurate timing for spraying. Garretson says, "There are obviously infection periods, and spraying preinfection is far better than postinfection."

In busy days, the data reminds him and keeps him from delaying a spray, he says. "If you do it right, you can save an awful lot of money in the long run when you think of the savings in labor hours, chemicals, possible crop loss and that loss of income."

SkyBit's E-Weather Service processes weather station data collected by the National Weather Service throughout the conterminous U.S., southern Canada and northern Mexico and interpolates that data to a 1-kilometer spatial resolution. The data are then fed into ZedX crop and pest-specific models, which are tailored to agricultural decision-making. Depending on the product, temporal resolutions can be as short as one day and forecasts can range from one day to an entire season using climatological data.

To a degree, all the work ZedX does is customized, and increasingly the models rely on field-specific feedback from growers. Garretson provides information on his apples, as well as his location based on GPS coordinates, and his tree growth, beginning with green-tip (bud sprout). In the near future, Russo promises that growers will type in their biofixes while their GPS coordinates will be automatically recorded through their phones.

It really becomes an exchange of data, and the customer-driven, on-demand articulation models help ZedX's continuing research and development to remain practical. Collected data is used to train computer models for even more reliable forecasting for others who might get customized data to help with irrigation scheduling, even estimating how much water will be needed, or frost predictions for select crops, or crop canopy temperatures based on cloud cover.

Tilting toward technology

The biggest challenge, Russo says, is cultural or generational. There's a learning curve and a change in behavior that relying on technology requires. "We've found that those 45 and below are far more willing to take technology on, then there's a middle ground, then resistance, or no interest, among the older farmers," he says.

"I knew I had to do it, but I've always been drawn to technology," says Garretson, who knows of others using the same or similar technology. He calls them "progressive growers."

As the technology becomes affordable, Russo predicts trickle-down from the larger-scale operations to the smaller, specialized niche farms. "Like in a lot of industries, those with the money have taken the lead," he says.

Recent research in meteorology has made long-range forecasts (one to two years out) possible. To boot, Russo says there are decades of untapped research in agriculture, data that still needs interpretation and integration.

The challenge for small companies like ZedX is to see the future, but to keep costs and risk contained. Ultimately, with each innovation, his objective is to create information technology that's generic enough to have broad appeal so he can expand the market, not narrow it. He understands as well that his products and services have to be financially digestible.

The overarching goal, Russo says, is to "bring [technology] to the fingertips of growers, to feed data to growers," who then make their own decisions.

Worth noting, too, is the inevitable impact on farm labor. Like with other industries that have incorporated technology and increased automation, there's likely to be a loss of human jobs, or at least an "adjustment of labor," he says. Middlemen could be eliminated unless their roles are redefined, or farmers might also continue to consolidate or sell out to conglomerates.

Companies like his, Russo says, simply try to stake out a vision, then grow toward it and with it. "It's all going very fast," he says. "We always feel like we're trying to catch up."

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.