The Florida Automated Weather Network is bigger than ever, with three new sites added this year.

Stations added since April are in Citrus, Okeechobee and Palm Beach counties, said Rick Lusher, manager of the network at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

That makes 41 stations now in the network, built in 1998 to give the state’s agricultural producers the most current weather information possible.

Growers rely on the network, particularly if freezes are in the forecast, Lusher said. Generally speaking, growers start planting in November or December, he said.

"Cold season is our big deal," Lusher said. IFAS officials receive an exponential increase in calls during the cold growing season, which lasts from November or December to as late as March, he said.

The network was built after the National Weather Service discontinued special forecasts for agriculture in 1998, Lusher said. UF lobbied for weather stations to be built as close to their farms and ranches as possible, he said.

Using sensors, the network stations collect weather data that’s updated by IFAS every 15 minutes.

Network managers at IFAS take data assimilated by the machines and put it on a website for growers to use.

That information includes temperature taken at three heights, wind speed and direction, rainfall, barometric pressure, humidity, soil temperature, soil radiation, dew point and wet bulb temperature, which is similar to dew point but takes evaporation into account.

The network does not forecast the weather, Lusher said. But growers can take measurements from any given 15-minute interval and, using a weather forecast, can make more informed farming decisions.

Growers don’t have to be sitting at their computers to get this information, either. They can use their smartphones to access the system, Lusher said.  Jim Shine, vice president of the Belle Glade-based Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, said he uses his FAWN station to keep tabs on approaching rain. That way, he and other sugar growers can know whether to pump the wells and whether to harvest.

FAWN stations are located in rural areas, he said, as compared to the weather service, which primarily builds its sites in more urban areas. The rural readings are generally colder than the data gathered in cities because concrete and asphalt can increase temperatures 10 degrees.

Even with three new weather stations, growers invariably ask: "When are you going to put a station near their farm?'" Lusher said.

He said he jokingly answers: "Show me the money."

That’s because it costs $15,000 to build a new station, he said, and another $10,000 a year for maintenance on each station.

FAWN gets about 30 percent of its funding from UF and 70 percent from grants and sponsorships, Lusher said. That money might come from the Florida Department of Agriculture, various water management districts and occasional gifts from a dozen or so trade associations, private companies and individuals, he said.

Lusher said IFAS has no immediate plans to add more FAWN stations, but that can change, depending on funding.