Scientists from the University of Florida and other Southeastern universities are helping farmers to get a jump on Mother Nature.

Combining computer crop models with climate forecasts that predict whether an upcoming season is likely to be a wet and stormy El Nino year, the researchers have designed a unique Web-based decision-making tool that farmers can use to minimize the risk of damage to their crops.

The interactive Web site is the work of the Southeast Climate Consortium, a group of researchers from universities in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The project is funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency.

“Most crops in Florida are affected (by El Nino) in some way, but the effects depend on the crop and its management,” said Jim Jones, a distinguished professor of agricultural and biological engineering at UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or UF/IFAS.

Known as AgClimate.org, the tool will allow farmers to get information on how different the expected climate is going to be from normal, and will provide estimates on how yields of particular crops might be affected.

The crop models are based on historical information about soil, weather and management. To help farmers get the most accurate predictions of climate conditions for a growing season, the researchers compile records of conditions during El Nino years, La Nina years and neutral years, as well as information about historical yields of certain crops during those seasons.

El Nino, a global climate event occurring every two to seven years, is caused by a change in atmospheric conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean leading to unusually warm ocean temperatures. In the Southeastern United States, the effects of El Nino are particularly strong, Jones said. El Ninos bring increased rainfall, stormy conditions and cooler-than-normal winter temperatures.

Conversely, during a La Nina year, the equatorial ocean is colder than average, leading to winter temperatures that are warmer than normal in the Southeast.

The Web tool can help farmers minimize risks throughout the growing season, from likely climate conditions affecting the establishment of a crop right after planting, to conditions by harvest time to the possibility of freezing, said Clyde Fraisse, an assistant Extension scientist in the UF/IFAS agricultural and biological engineering department.

After the busy 2004 hurricane season, farmers are especially interested in storm forecasts, Fraisse said.

“They have to decide about the wind and hail damage insurance, and then about the acreage to cover,” he said. Knowing whether it's likely to be an active storm season, the farmer also can decide whether to insure his entire farm or just a couple of fields, or even whether to change crops.

“They're looking at this as a way to help them streamline their decisions,” he added.

Currently, the Web site can simulate potential yields for peanuts, potatoes and tomatoes based on the expected seasonal climate, planting dates and management practices. Over the next year, the researchers will add cotton and corn to the site, as well as additional tools such as the range of expected dates of freeze and frost. The researchers also will work with producers around the region to fine-tune the Web site and maximize its usefulness.

Big implications

“This has tremendous implications as a decision tool for our producers,” said Joan Dusky, an assistant dean for the UF/IFAS Extension service. “If you knew it was going to be unusually wet in July, would you or could you do anything differently to minimize risk? They're taking climate predictions one step farther, making it easier for producers to make decisions.”

The Southeast Climate Consortium, part of NOAA's Regional Integrated Science Assessment program, includes researchers from the University of Georgia and from Auburn University in Alabama as well as Florida State University and the University of Miami. Climate predictions used in the models are developed by FSU's Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies.

The consortium is unique in that it is the only NOAA Regional Integrated Science Assessment program that focuses on agriculture and management of climate-related risks, Fraisse said.