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FARM SCENE: Farmers decry loss of federal weather forecast

February 20, 1997

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) _ For almost 40 years, William Krome relied on the federal government for help in protecting his crops.

Part of a network of growers that shared information with the National Weather Service, Krome was rewarded with freeze warnings based on conditions in his Dade County fields. It was a perfect arrangement, Krome said, and an example of a federal program that worked.

Now the $3 million-a-year program is dead, a victim of congressional budget cuts. Krome and other growers claim the loss left them unprepared for a devastating January cold snap that wiped out much of Florida’s winter vegetable and citrus crops.

Farmers, taxpayers and consumers will pick up the tab, which could top $400 million in agricultural losses, disaster aid and higher grocery prices.

The disaster has renewed a heated debate over whether the federal government should be putting out farm weather forecasts. Florida officials are waiting to see what Washington does before looking into a freeze warning system of their own.

A month after the freeze, Krome still gets angry as he looks at his dead fields. ``This is outrageous,″ he said. ``We farmers feel like we’ve been betrayed.″

In April, Washington lawmakers pulled the plug on the agricultural forecast service, giving in to budget concerns and private meteorologists who lobbied against the program. The federal government’s free service had no business competing with private forecasters out to make a profit, opponents insisted.

``The agricultural interests have had this free service for so long that they’re angry they have to pay now,″ said Amy Taylor, a lobbyist for the Commercial Weather Service Association in Washington.

Unable or unwilling to pay for private weather companies, which cost up to $6,000 annually, Krome and most other South Florida farmers now depend on television forecasts and their own rudimentary weather equipment.

Commerce Department officials and congressional supporters of the cut insist the missed forecast was a complicated one that likely would have been blown even if the agricultural service were still around.

``It would have made no difference whatsoever,″ said Rodger Getz, a former National Weather Service forecaster who heads the private Agricultural Weather Information Service of Auburn, Ala. ``This was one of those rare, unique situations that couldn’t have been forecast well in advance.″

But Jerry Jarrell, deputy director of the National Weather Service’s Tropical Prediction Center in Miami, says farm forecasters looking for very specific signs might have made the call.

``The people doing it would have had a different mindset,″ Jarrell said. ``When you forecast for the public, you forecast for where the public is _ the concrete island along the coast _ not the agricultural areas.″

The Clinton administration made 28 Florida counties eligible for disaster aid in the form of low-interest loans, a move that is expected to cost millions of dollars. The state will spend $100,000 to help 20,000 farm workers who became unemployed because there were few crops to harvest.

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