The Weatherman and the Weather

Predicting regional acreage, production and supplies

Published in the April 2013 Issue Published online: Apr 16, 2013 Jerry P. Wright, President & CEO, United Potato Gr
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Ever heard of El Niño? El Niño is a warming of the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean. It's called El Niño (euphemism for the Christ Child) because it usually can be noted around Christmas time. Since air holds 7 percent more water vapor for every 1 degree C increase in temperature, El Niño results in wetter air. What does this mean when that supersaturated air moves over land? It means more rain. It can even mean floods, more severe hurricanes and tornados.

On the other hand, during La Niña the water cools-cooling the air above it. Cool air cannot hold as much moisture as warmer air. Because the air is drier when it reaches land, drought often results. In oscillations between El Niño's and La Niña's extremes, no one really knows what is going to happen. Here's the really bad part: No one has identified the mechanism that causes either case. Weather scientists all over the globe each want to become famous by suggesting a theory. To date no one has.

What does this mean to the person whose job it is to predict the weather? It means that his predictions can be no better than the information he is given. Obviously, when eastern Pacific water reaches either temperature extreme, predictions become more accurate. During times when ocean temperatures wander in the middle, the poor weatherman is on his own. But since he isn't, the mechanism for stimulating El Niño or La Niña, the weather isn't his fault. This means that, even when your farm lacks rain or gets too much rain, you can't blame the weatherman.

Now imagine a paradigm wherein this same hapless weather forecaster learns to regulate El Niño and La Niña. Let's assume that he can dial them in plus or minus 1 percent accuracy. If a region needs 24 inches of annual rainfall, or 36 inches spaced exactly right for planting, growing and harvesting crops, he can make it happen. In this scenario, you might even invite him and his wife out to dinner. What a valuable friend he could become.

Now transpose the weather-predicting scenario to the potato-growing scenario: The potato grower can now access data through United sufficient to predict regional acreage, production and supplies accurate to within a few cents of market price. Is this significant? Would that be helpful?

One would assume that any person about to invest something close to $4,000 per acre to grow a crop of potatoes would pay dearly for such knowledge. This was the reason for forming United in the first place. Prior to United, growing a potato crop was a crap-shoot at best, and the odds weren't that attractive. Now, referencing all of the data that potato growers have accumulated, growing potatoes can and should be among the most lucrative of all agricultural enterprises.

While no one has identified the mechanism that drives El Niño, everyone knows the mechanism that drives potato markets and prices.

A cookie goes to the first person with the answer.