In conversation with Nelson Cecarelli, Owner of Cecarelli Farms on June 5th, 2017
Well before the installation of a RainWise MKIII weather station at Cecarelli Farms this past January, Nelson Cecarelli was itching to harness the power of his own on-farm data.
The year prior, Nelson took part in a class with UConn Extension on how to use NEWA forecast tools based on data from solar powered weather stations. Fast forward to present day, and we’re now checking in with him on how his own on-farm weather station has been working out.
A few miles matters a lot when you’re monitoring crops
“[It's] amazing the difference a few miles can make. You see, if you’re in a valley, you could be in real trouble if you’re basing your decisions on a [near-by] weather station somewhere else.”
This trouble to which Nelson refers is the fact that cold air sinks, and the difference of just a few degrees between valley and upland could mean life or death for a crop due to a killing frost. At a certain point, cold weather will cause the water in plant cells to freeze, which can damage or kill cells preventing further crop development. Blossoms are especially sensitive to frost and therefore flowering crops have a greater need for accurate temperature data.
One such fruit crop that Nelson and his team worry about in spring is strawberries. The farm grows their strawberries uncovered, and so there’s always been a heightened concern about the weather in early May. Strawberries typically start to bloom around this time, and will continue to flower for about 3 to 4 weeks before any fruit starts to develop. According to Nelson, the farm tends to not get frosts past May 15th, but strawberries will often bloom before this time. Connecticut is no stranger to late spring frosts; however, the early and substantial warming periods occurring in winter months throw an extra curve ball into the natural seasonal cycle.
“We’ve been using soil moisture levels from the weather station, growing degree day models, and we also set up a frost alert for our strawberries on our cell phone. We didn’t get an alert this spring, but it was good to know we had that kind of system in place to let us know when the temperature was going to drop to killing levels for our blooms.”
If a frost alert (set for 34 degrees) had been issued from his weather station this past spring, Nelson would have had just enough time to turn on the farm’s irrigation systems before the temperature could drop further. Sound odd? It might, but it actually protects a fruit crop, like strawberries, when temperatures are hovering right at and below the freezing point. It works because it takes more energy for water to freeze, and ironically, this energy creates just enough heat to protect the crop.
“…And so we can keep our strawberries alive by pumping the root systems with water at freezing temperatures.”
The biggest challenge this past spring
Like all other farmers in the area, Nelson’s biggest qualm so far this season has been waiting for summer to start.
“In two weeks it might not be an issue—and I don’t anticipate it would be— but right now, we’re still waiting for summer to begin. The plants are in the ground but the lack of sun doesn’t allow them to grow. There’s always going to be weather challenges, but I can’t yet tell if this year is going to be too wet or too dry yet.”
There’s been more than an adequate amount of rainfall this past spring (and almost too much according to Nelson), but without enough sun, many plants simply can’t do the one thing they want to do.
Making decisions on facts
As the summer progresses, Cecarelli Farms also grows tomatoes, peppers, onions, corn, summer squash, eggplant and cabbage. One of the big things they watch for is humidity and leaf wetness levels as these conditions are favorable to blights and downy mildew. Having an on-farm weather station allows Nelson and his team to be increasingly precise about if and even when they may need to apply fungicides.
“We don’t like to spray, but we do if we have to. The weather station’s data can tell us exactly when we need to spray (if at all) for things like cabbage maggot by looking at humidity and moisture levels.”
If crops do need to be sprayed, the weather station can also help determine when to spray based on wind speed and direction. By using this kind of information, farmers can reduce labor and energy inputs and save money by spraying more selectively.
“In spots on our farm, some fields get a lot of wind. We wouldn’t want to spray in windy conditions, but the wind does help keep plant leaf surfaces dry — we typically plant our tomato plant rows six feet apart, and two feet apart within rows as this spacing lets in enough air flow between them.”
In order to keep leaf surfaces dry, Cecarelli Farms uses drip irrigation lines for their crops. This system keeps water targeted to the topsoil layer where it can easily penetrate down to roots. In addition to this, Nelson will also be monitoring soil moisture levels this summer to know more precisely when to turn on or off the farm’s drip irrigation systems when conditions become drier. Irrigating crops in conjunction with on-farm soil moisture data allows Cecarelli Farms to conserve water by using the resource more efficiently and effectively.
“If I have data showing conditions for cabbage maggot, if I have a tool, then I’m spraying more precisely when there’s an issue. I’m not making a guess. I’m making informed decisions versus just doing something when I think I should be doing it. And sometimes that might mean I don’t do anything. So, overall, this weather station helps save my time, energy and finances.”
Farming will never see a shortage of challenges, but there is no shortage of solutions. As our climate in the Northeast changes to become warmer and wetter, location-specific weather data will become increasingly pertinent to farmers. In this sense, Cecarelli Farms leads by example in their dedication to integrating on-farm data into their management decisions… or as Nelson simply puts it, “they now make decisions based on facts.”