Working for the Chill of It : Forecaster Uses Latest Techniques to Help Growers Protect Crops

Times Staff Writer

Being a man whose career can go from hot to cold overnight, Terry Schaeffer never leaves home without his digital thermometer.

In the fertile Santa Clara Valley, he totes the device through citrus groves and prods it into lemons. In Oxnard, he romps through strawberry fields and pokes it into the soil. And, for driving in between, he hooks it to a sensor outside his car and watches the temperature flash, accurate to within a tenth of a degree, across his dashboard.

“Just like some people are lost without their watch,” he says of the $350 instrument, “I’m lost without this.”

Schaeffer is the National Weather Service’s meteorologist for Ventura County, a job that calls for two daily forecasts, a knack for farm lore and an unshakable belief that the whims of nature can be accurately predicted.


Because, these days, as the digits on his thermometer start to plummet, Schaeffer’s forecasts begin to carry the weight of papal proclamations for the 1,600 farmers trying to protect their crops from the ravages of frost.

“The buck stops here,” said the 43-year-old Schaeffer, thin and bearded, and equipped with the easy manner of a high school science teacher. “I’m the only one who can screw up.”

$60 Million in Damage

Of course, Schaeffer cannot ward off the frigid weather, which last winter caused $60 million in damage to Ventura County crops. But he can warn farmers about cold snaps several days in advance, enough time to ready the wind machines or smudge pots that can raise orchard temperatures by a few critical degrees.

Damage from the first frost of the season, which descended Christmas night, was kept minimal, in part, because Schaeffer had predicted the sub-freezing temperatures to within a degree, farmers said.

“Everyone knows it’s going to get cold, but you really need to know how cold,” said Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail, who oversees the county’s $600-million-a-year farm industry. “Terry is very good on his temperature predictions. It’s a vital service.”

Schaeffer, who spends summers in the Pacific Northwest providing forecasts for firefighters, begins his day about 8 a.m. with a review of the latest weather maps in his cramped Santa Paula office.

Classical music plays on a clock radio, and a portable heater warms the cement- walled room as he studies the temperatures and barometric pressures being broadcast via satellite from Washington. A $5,000 color computer allows him to zoom in on any weather front in the Western Hemisphere through the eye of a satellite-mounted infrared camera.

He says it takes about 3 hours to complete a forecast, which includes temperature predictions for 11 key agricultural zones in Ventura County, as well as two in Santa Barbara County. Farmers can hear the forecast on one of four radio stations or call an unlisted number, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for a recorded version.

But his office work is only half the job. During especially cold periods, Schaeffer often stays up blustery nights in the fields with farmers, taking temperature readings from their fruit, learning the climactic idiosyncrasies of each orchard and making friends.

“We’re not just weather forecasters; we have to be communicators,” he said. “We have to know what the growers want and we have to give it to them on their level. . . . If you start talking about isobars and areas of positive vorticity advections, you’re going to lose them in a hurry.”

That folksy approach plays big with farmers, who chipped in to buy Schaeffer the computer, as well as the digital thermometer and the unlisted phone line that they use to hear his forecasts.

‘Learning Odds and Ends’

“Most meteorologists look at their charts and their computer and that’s about it,” said Chris Taylor, manager of farming for the 3,000 acres of lemons, oranges and avocados owned by Limoneira Co. of Santa Paula. “He’s out there in the middle of the night with the rest of us, learning little odds and ends and trying to fit in as a friend.”

But more valuable than his medium is his message. At least 95% of the time at all 13 weather stations in the two counties, Schaeffer says his forecasts are accurate to within 2 degrees--a remarkable feat considering the peaks and valleys that separate Goleta from Moorpark.

On the same night, for instance, Santa Paula may register a balmy 53 while the mercury in Santa Barbara may dip to 29. One November several years back in Bardsdale, Schaeffer predicted a sudden cold front, then watched as the temperature plunged from 96 to 32 degrees in 24 hours. “Sometimes I amaze myself how accurate I am,” he said.

Farmers sure appreciate it. Extreme cold causes moisture in the fruit to expand, rupturing the cell structure sometimes after just a few hours; strawberries are damaged at 32 degrees; avocados go at 30 and citrus at 28.

With the proper warning, though, farmers have a range of remedies to protect their harvests. Wind machines with propellers sticking 35 feet above an orchard can circulate large quantities of air and pull warmer pockets down to the ground. Helicopter crews, flying back and forth for hours, can do the same.

Scholarly Paper

Diesel-fired orchard heaters, commonly known as smudge pots, are sometimes used to spread warm, thick smoke at colder temperatures. And, through a quirk of physics, plants can be warmed several degrees by spraying them with just the right amounts of water, a technique that Schaeffer explains in a scholarly paper he completed last month.

“Terry knows the farming aspects of this area,” said Steve Smith, general manager for Ventura County Fruit Growers, which serves as a packing house for 220 farmers. “And Terry knows the farming aspect of this area. I have no doubts about what he tells me.”

Raised in the small Illinois farming town of Marengo, Schaeffer said he developed an appreciation for weather right after high school when he enlisted in the Navy. While at sea in the Far East on a large, flat-bottomed ship, he found himself the plaything of a large typhoon that battered the craft and tossed his crew mates from their beds.

“I gained a healthy respect for the weather after that,” he said.

He earned a bachelor of science degree in meteorology from Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, then interned at a weather bureau at the airport in Cleveland, Ohio. Twelve years ago, he came to Ventura County as part of the Fruit Frost Service, a federal program developed in 1917 that provides agricultural regions with their own forecasters.

Enjoys Camaraderie

As part of the job, he spends summers in the wooded areas of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, where he keeps firefighters up-to-date on fluctuations in temperature and wind direction. Schaeffer, who usually takes his wife and two children along, says he enjoys the camaraderie he encounters at the fire’s edge.

“It’s kind of like being in a war--everyone together for the same goal,” he said. “The esprit de corps is really high.”

But Schaeffer, who boasts license plates that read FROSTER, says his heart is not in fire, but in ice.

“I’ve been so sick that I’ve had to lie on the floor looking at maps with a bucket next to me,” he said. “You’re talking about a highly motivated guy. But I think I do my best forecasting under pressure. . . . I get more intense . . . my voice goes down an octave . . . and the adrenaline gets flowing.”