On a list of factors influencing yield in corn and soybeans, weather is often cited as having the largest influence on hybrid or varietal performance in the field. Dr. Fred Below, a professor of crop physiology at the University of Illinois, has compiled two lists: the Seven Wonders of Corn Yield and the Six Secrets of Soybean Success, and in both instances, weather ranks first.
That’s the accepted reality in weather, particularly where farming is concerned.
Yet in matters pertaining to weather forecasts, Canadian growers have a variety of choices, including Environment Canada, WeatherFarm or The Weather Network, while those in U.S. are almost too numerous to list. Most of them also have mobile apps and some have subscription services.
One service that has set itself apart from the more immediate and complementary outlook providers is the Browning World Climate Bulletin, a subscription service by Browning Media LLC, that provides exactly what the name states: a world perspective on climate.
It’s probably not for those looking for signs of rain or warnings of frost found in the five- to seven-day forecasts. The fit instead is for those in the agri-food and agri-business sectors who are involved in that next level of farm business — the logistics of storing and handling or garnering a better understanding of weather’s impacts on oil refineries or shipping.
“What we’re doing is attempting to prepare clients a season ahead of time, usually in a three- to six-month outlook,” says James Garriss, a third-generation co-owner of the Browning World Climate Bulletin. “We focus the outlook to be region-specific and industry-specific, and that’s what we try to provide to our clients, to help them plan.”
History of the bulletin
The service has been in existence for almost 40 years and was started by Garriss’s grandfather, Dr. Iben Browning, whose work in climate understanding and forecasting started out as a hobby. But in the late 1970s, California’s raisin crop was decimated by untimely rains that forced one major food company to seek other sources of raisins for their products. In the process of that search, they met with Browning, a scientist who, in spite of possessing four degrees (math, physics, chemistry and a PhD in biology), was more interested in climatology than anything else and decided to make it his career. The food company hired Browning and he began building a base of clients interested in the same types of projections.
Browning’s passion for weather and climatology was shared by his daughter, Evelyn Browning Garriss, who succeeded him as the guiding force of the business. She earned degrees in history and anthropology and used what she’d learned in the two fields to determine more about the impacts of weather on peoples’ lives. Neither studied meteorology yet both parlayed their education into a service that’s become necessary to the success of many businesses from different sectors around the globe.
James Garriss now holds monthly conference calls with clients, outlining the report’s findings for the next three to six months, and he makes presentations at different events during the year. He concedes that agriculture is one of the easier sectors from which to garner subscriptions, given its reliance on weather patterns and events. Garriss is also finding that expansion into investment, insurance and tourism are logical next steps: there’s more at stake now for many of these industries, so they’re looking for that competitive edge, even in something as nebulous as climate.
Hurricane Harvey’s impact on North America’s energy sector in 2017 is just one example of how weather can affect commerce, beyond the effects on crops and their management.
“The secret of weather that wasn’t there 20 or 30 years ago — but is available today because of the internet and cell phone apps — is that severe weather is influencing some part of the world nearly every day,” says Garriss.
“We’re more keenly aware of it than ever before. Normally, it comes in the form of disasters — typhoons, flooding, volcanoes, droughts and hurricanes. With our weather being so much more extreme in its nature, when we suffer the effects of severe rain or a drought or a hurricane, it’s an automatic human reaction to say, ‘I wish I had been prepared for this.’”
It’s not about control or prediction — a term Garriss avoids in his presentations. It’s about knowing of “Potential Outcome A” and being better prepared to follow “Plan B.” If it’s known that the Atlantic Ocean is likely to create more storm activity in early spring — something he warned of a year ago — those conditions could delay planting.
Obviously, there’s a lot of trust involved in those types of forecasts, and Browning’s accuracy has been very high — the company’s website states it’s more than 80 per cent in the past 15 years.
But it’s with that sort of information that agricultural clients can make better-informed decisions on planting conditions or whether it will be a shorter growing season and how that might affect the harvest. As Garriss delves deeper into that level of information exchange, he knows he has some farm clients who want that detail for investment purposes — beyond the marketing of the crop.
“That’s the reason why we don’t just look at one region; we provide a global outlook,” he says. “If a local farmer knows that their area of the province or even their region of the country will have poor conditions for corn planting, they’re also going to be aware that Brazil is going to have great conditions for corn planting. That would allow them to consider how that will influence their pricing and the prices of those crops they’re choosing to plant as a result of the poorer conditions.”
There’s more information available because Garriss, his mother and grandfather were able to interpret and correlate various meteorological data patterns that were largely unknown 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
The science has also advanced incredibly, with data points and satellite imagery today that provide more information on weather patterns and influences. The science has also gathered data from ice cores and coral rings.
“In the 1970s we started to see satellite imagery that gave us a better understanding of precipitation patterns, temperature analyses and snow depths,” says Garriss. “We’ve been able to use the data more formally to find the patterns and find the information that can give us a better outlook of potential weather and climate impact in a short, medium and longer term.”
Investment in business
Roughly 60 per cent of Browning World Climate Bulletin’s subscribers are U.S.-based — again, it can be one of the easier sectors to sell. There is a strong following — roughly one-sixth — in Canada, with the rest located in China, Singapore, Australia and Europe, with a select few in parts of South and Central America.
The fees for the bulletin include a standard and premium service. The standard is US$295 per year and entitles the user to a monthly eight-page online document that addresses two or three climate and weather trends taking shape in North America and around the world. For an additional $100, a subscriber will also receive a printed copy of the report. The premium service is US$995 annually and subscribers receive the same access to documents along with the monthly conference call opportunity (with a slideshow), interactive questioning and digital access.
For what Browning Media does, there is no simple algorithm where a user plugs in “x,” “y” and “z,” because there are too many variables and there’s too much disagreement. Talk to two scientists and each one will have a different outlook on how a volcano has an impact on an area or why an area is experiencing drought or heavier precipitation.
Garriss and his team look at a large body of information — ocean currents, jet stream patterns, volcanic activity. And then they look at the history, and they search for patterns. Then they attempt to figure out the reaction of companies, industries and people to this information.
“With what we do, we let our clients know at the very beginning that this is based off of information, data, expertise, research and development, but don’t take it as pure gospel, because there are aspects that can completely change our outlook,” says Garriss. “Although we try to update people as soon as that happens, one volcanic eruption can completely change an entire six-month forecast or outlook, just because of where it erupted and how it erupted.”
For more information or details, visit the Browning World Climate Bulletin website.