I met an old TV colleague recently. It was Jim Bacon, the Norfolk-born weather forecaster who gave the weekly outlook on the farming programmes I used to present for Anglia. These days his Weatherquest team provides a telephone and web-based forecasting service from the University of East Anglia (UEA) on the Norwich Research Park.
“Good to see you,” he said. “How’s the farm?”
He hadn’t caught me on a good day. A bitterly cold wind was still blowing from the east, autumn-sown cereals, rape and grass were blue and going backwards rather than growing, and we hadn’t even started drilling spring crops.
“You should know,” I retorted. “We’ve just endured the worst 12 months of weather in living memory across the country and it’s your fault. Yet still you ask me ‒ how’s the farm?”
Fortunately, Jim is a patient chap and, having worked on farms in his youth, understood my frustration. “Steady old boy,” he said. “I don’t make the weather. Don’t shoot the messenger.”
He was right. My response was unreasonable. In more measured tones, we went on to discuss how farmers could make use of the information he gathers daily to minimise or optimise the effects of weather to suit our enterprises.
I admitted that I’m a weather forecast-aholic, watching and listening to every broadcast in the hope of hearing better news each time. And there are often variations in the predictions made only minutes apart. Jim explained that some of this may be because many forecasts have to cover large areas and the dominant audience just wants to know how sunny it will be. Not local details important to agriculture. So inevitably, forecasts are general.
“I admitted that I’m a weather forecast-aholic, watching and listening to every broadcast in the hope of hearing better news each time. And there are often variations in the predictions made only minutes apart.”
What you need, he went on, is a tailor-made, detailed forecast for your postcode with accurate predictions of when it’s going to rain, how much will fall, what the wind speeds and temperatures will be throughout each 24 hours, and all this updated every few hours.
If only, I replied, but that would cost me an arm and a leg and I’d need to be on the phone to you full-time. Not so, said Jim, so long as you have a computer. Come to my office at the UEA and I’ll show you the nationwide Weatherquest Farming Portal we’ve just developed.
I accepted his invitation last week. Jim’s new service includes regularly updated 10-day forecasts based on up to 50 computer models for your farm location, which change from specifics to probabilities as the period progresses. Cloud movements and precipitation can be tracked live on your home computer screen. The programme includes humidity forecasts for potato-growers concerned about blight, frost warnings for fruit farmers, information on soil temperatures, evaporation rates for irrigators, and every weather-type of relevance to farmers.
There’s even a monthly forecast, again based on probability, which indicates major weather changes over the period to help ensure farming operations can be planned for the best conditions likely to occur. And, should you need historical data to satisfy traceability or health and safety enquiries, this is available.
Who knows if we shall have such a disastrous and extended mixture of weather in the future? But given that we seem to break a record every year, for sun, wind, rain, snow, frost or whatever, the likelihood is that more of us are going to need access to accurate forecasting services to help us through.
David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna. His son Rob is farm manager.
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