Inventor wins IPM award for rugged farm weather stations
by Mary Woodsen
Inventor John Leggett’s closest tie to agriculture was the peas and tomatoes he grew behind his house—until 1991, that is, when John Gibbons, a researcher at Cornell University, called him for advice. Gibbons was using “hygrothermographs” to forecast if farmers needed to worry about devastating blights on their crops. But these instruments were too cumbersome for busy farmers to use. Gibbons needed something affordable, sturdy, and reliable. He hoped to adapt Leggett’s portable weather instruments to his needs.
For exceptional work in developing automated weather instruments and software to forecast disease and insect pests and reduce pesticide use, Leggett, who recently retired from the company he founded, is receiving an “Excellence in IPM Award” from the New York State Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program at Cornell University.
Ken Datthyn of Datthyn Farms in Sodus, NY, who grows 100 acres of onions, was one of the first growers to install the new instruments. Onions are notoriously susceptible to Botrytis leaf blight, a killer disease. Warm, humid weather can quickly bring it on. Growers have one day to treat or risk losing their crop. Before blight forecasts came on the scene, growers used routine “calendar sprays” to prevent Botrytis.
Datthyn quickly noticed the difference—on his balance sheet. “I can look at the instruments and in 10 minutes I can tell if I need to worry or not,” he says. “Some years the forecasts save me as much as $3,000 in sprays. But if I missed a spray and lost the crop, that’d be a half-million dollar loss.”
Now the IPM Program has a network of 45 weather stations in 21 counties that deliver IPM pest forecasts via the internet to growers across New York. The Program’s Network for Environment and Weather Awareness (NEWA), a collaboration between farmers, consultants, and Cornell’s Extension educators and scientists, can predict 23 disease and insect pests on high-value agricultural crops.
“Before John got involved, I would go to cooperating farms to retrieve the data, then enter it into my calculator by hand,” says Carol MacNeil, a Cornell Cooperative Extension specialist in vegetables. “Now I can get the data from dozens of sites online. Just in my area, 140 PestMinder subscribers on about 42,000 acres now have more IPM options, thanks to the network.”
This forecasting network couldn’t have happened without Leggett’s pioneering work, says Tim Weigle, an IPM educator who helps grape growers statewide forecast diseases like black rot and downy mildew.
“John designed something that met all of our needs and brought IPM pest forecast models into the electronic age, affordably,” says Weigle. “Keep in mind that his instruments had to stand up to everything from lightning strikes to tractors bumping into them. John got himself up to speed on the models we’d worked out for a whole range of pests, then dove right in to create the instruments and software we needed. He is outstanding—a real ‘do-it’ guy.”
Leggett receives his award on February 13 at the Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo in Syracuse, NY.