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Business in Forecast for Frost Expert

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For 20 years, Ventura County farmers have set their sprinklers and wind machines by Terry Schaeffer’s weather forecasts.

But at 6:30 p.m. April 19, Schaeffer will issue his last forecast as a federal government meteorologist. And at midnight, the federal weather program to which he belongs will cease to exist.

The government is dismantling its Fruit Frost Service, an 80-year-old branch of the National Weather Service that has supplied generations of farmers nationwide with the latest weather information to help protect crops from adverse weather changes.

But local growers have become so dependent on Schaeffer, and so confident in his ability to predict temperatures within a few degrees, that they are scraping up the money to take him private. If all goes as planned, Schaeffer, 50, will continue to forecast on his own after April 20, his work paid for by local farmers.

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“There’s been an ongoing relationship between the agricultural community and Terry for decades,” said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. “Terry has established a tremendous track record and has a real strong following.”

Schaeffer, for his part, is anxious to continue working with local farmers and said that he’s grateful for the support they have shown.

“It’s a mutual admiration society between me and the growers,” he said. “I like the way they work, and they like the way I work.”

Schaeffer’s track record is built on forecasts he cranks out twice daily--seven days a week from late fall to early spring--in his Santa Paula office. The National Weather Service office in Oxnard may predict the regional weather throughout Southern California, but it is Schaeffer who monitors the specific conditions in Ventura County’s fields and orchards.

His forecasts have a depth and precision, farmers say, that the National Weather Service cannot match. What are the chances of overnight frost in Bardsdale? How late in the morning will the dew burn off in Santa Paula?

Such precision is particularly important in Ventura County, where the shape of the land--rising from coastal plains to mountain valleys--can create wildly different weather conditions.

“One side of the Santa Rosa Valley is so cold it isn’t funny--the other side never gets cold,” Don Reeder, a manager of Moorpark’s Pro-Ag farm management company, said in describing the valley northwest of Thousand Oaks. “Do we feel we need him to do our weather as far as our microclimates go? The answer is yes.”

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Schaeffer’s reputation also rests on his hands-on approach. He spends much of his time in the field, checking weather monitors and talking with farmers.

“After you’ve been in ag weather this long, you have to be more than just a meteorologist--you have to know what the plants are doing,” Schaeffer said. “A lot of forecasters stay in their offices. They don’t get out there and see what’s happening.”

The federal government does not dispute the worth of Schaeffer’s program. Nor does it see axing the Fruit Frost Service as an easy way to save large amounts of money, said Ron Hamilton, Schaeffer’s Riverside-based supervisor. The entire nationwide service--with offices in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida--costs just $640,000 each year, he said.

Instead, the program’s end came about through a change in philosophy. Allan Eustis, deputy chief of the National Weather Service’s Office of Industrial Meteorology, said both the Clinton administration and Congress believe agricultural weather forecasting can and should be done by the private sector.

The change has been a long time coming. Every administration since Ronald Reagan’s has proposed eliminating the service, Eustis said. For years, Congress balked at the idea, but that opposition ended once Republicans--determined to downsize the federal government--seized control of both the House and Senate.

“This time, Congress took the bait and agreed with the administration,” Eustis said. “Since we have the intent from Congress and the administration to privatize these services, those are our marching orders.”

As a private meteorologist, Schaeffer would offer much the same service as he did before. Farmers would still access his information through a special, subscription-only phone line as they already do.

However, the new system may offer several levels of service, allowing growers of strawberries, avocados, lemons and vegetables to choose either a basic forecast or perhaps receive by fax weather maps showing conditions in different areas. To get the information, each subscriber would need to enter a personal identification number over the phone line--a system similar to the one that banks use to protect accounts.

Subscription fees would be based on the number of acres each subscriber farms. Although the final price has not been determined, Laird said it could be around $2 per acre. The entire weather forecasting service would cost an estimated $100,000 to $120,000 for the first year, he said, with prices falling in the future once a new office is established and accompanying computer equipment is purchased.

Laird and county Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail are currently trying to enlist farmers in the effort and hope to make a firm commitment to Schaeffer by March 1.

Although some growers said they would have preferred to keep the Fruit Frost System the way it was, they are willing to pay for the service if it will give them the information they need. Without reliable frost warnings, for example, producers could face devastating financial losses, said Pierre Tada, chief operating officer of Limoneira Co. in Santa Paula, the county’s largest producer of citrus.

“It’s vital and critical during the winter months,” he said. “It’s not something you want to gamble on. This business is a risky business without having adequate information.”

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Should the privatization effort fail, Schaeffer would probably face reassignment by the National Weather Service. But with a wife who teaches special education at a Santa Paula elementary school and two teenage sons--one a senior at Santa Paula High, another a Ventura College sophomore--a transfer is an undesirable option.

Schaeffer said he would prefer to continue working with the growers he knows, analyzing conditions in the fields and orchards he knows.

“I don’t consider myself a weather service employee--I consider myself a public servant,” he said. “I believe in serving my users as best I can.”


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