It's raining information

Photo of PDA accessing weather and climate information

[Photo: The future in accessing weather and climate information. Source: Bureau of Meteorology; SatellIte Image From NASA/MODIS; phone/PDA image, Telstra.]

From not havIng enough informatIon about the weather, farmers are In danger of havIng too much, wrItes Peter Hayman

As John Naisbitt wrote about information in his book Megatrends: "We have for the first time an economy based on a key resource that is not only renewable, but self-generating. Running out of it is not a problem, but drowning in it is."

In the space of a little more than a decade, we have gone from a shortage of information about the weather to the problem of information dazzle. Farmers and their advisers have always been keen to get whatever weather and climate information they can. There is a long history of using newspapers, the radio and then television to get information. Increased use of faxes, pay- TV, internet and now even mobile phones mean immediate access to information.

When you put a farmer in front of the internet, weather and prices are two of the most common sources of information accessed. The requirements for weather information is that it is local and recent - a good example is the Bureau of Meteorology radar.

There are many examples where farmers have used the advances in information technology to access weather information, especially for sowing and spraying operations. However, some farmers and advisers have said that it is a bit like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Increased levels of information do not necessarily lead to better decisions. One farmer told me that wading through all the sites was a bit like starting to diagnose diseases on the internet, where you end up appreciating your experienced GP.

I recall at a meeting another farmer making the point that the fax suited him better than the internet because he could read his faxes over lunch rather than fiddling with a keyboard. And he didn"t have to wade through unsolicited emails. Another older farmer told the group about this fantastic invention that he could use while he was driving or fencing - it didn"t cost anything, it provided up to date information and told him just about as much as other inventions. It was the wireless.

Most state departments of agriculture have websites with weather and climate information. Two of the best developed examples are in Queensland and Western Australia.

In South Australia, the Climate Risk Management Farmers Association, run by Melissa Rebbeck of the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), is a subscriber service. Farmers can request a newsletter at a district-specific, farm-specific or paddock-specific level of information. The information is collected from a number of sources and interpreted for the local context.

The Yield Prophet project, run from Birchip in Victoria, allows farmers to use the internet to access the sophisticated cropping systems model APSIM. The NSW Department of Primary Industries is developing a program called CROPMATE, which uses a calendar of cropping operations to organise the information from the Bureau of Meteorology for specific cropping decisions.

In Denmark, farmers are using smartphones to access the internet while they are in the field. This has greatly increased the use of programs that were previously only available on the desktop computer. No doubt there will be many developments, but along with these developments many farmers are likely to still use the wireless.

GRDC Research Code LWR25
For more information: Dr Peter Hayman, principal scientist, climate applications, SARDI, 08 8303 9729

Region North