Jeff Lorton 2017-04-27 02:09:35
Growing into Ag-Tech Over the last three and a half years, my wife Valerie and I have found ourselves in a new and exciting place in our careers, thanks in large part to the recent global interest in agricultural technology. Our story takes us from quiet wine-and-hazelnut-producing Yamhill County in western Oregon to where we live now—the astoundingly fertile Columbia Basin, which includes parts of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Val and I are not farmers or food producers, nor are we engineers or biologists. In fact, we struggle to keep our houseplants alive. We are marketeers—producers of clever catch phrases and growers of the client’s bottom line. Until a few years ago, we had little to do with agriculture beyond designing labels for some of our regional wineries and restaurants. Our marketing agency was born from our passion for telling stories that needed telling. Yamhill County lies in the lush rural valley between Portland and the Pacific Coast and has a rich history of high-value agriculture. In the early 1800s, Oregon Trail pioneers were attracted to the region because of its highquality soils and mild climate. Generations later, farming is still a primary economic force in the region, and today the land is covered with vineyards, hazelnut orchards, and berries, as well as hay, winter wheat, and a large variety of ornamentals. Yamhill County is one of the most diverse agricultural zones in the U.S., growing well over 200 specialty crops. In 2013, we were contracted by the county government to assess the economic development that was taking place in the region and come up with a strategy for moving forward. The dominance of agriculture in the area and increased interest in high-tech solutions for rote operations have made Yamhill County and the surrounding region a prime location for developing and testing ag tech innovations. During our one-year contract with the county, we took a deep dive into the rapidly evolving world of digital farming tools. Robotics, data management, EM mapping, precision irrigation, unmanned systems, crop yield, and soil science became our topics of conversation over dinner. We began attending regional technology forums, farm shows, and sector- specific events like the AUVSI Cascade Chapter’s Robot Rodeo. Photographs of new products—Yamaha’s RMAX helicopter, John Deere’s automated tractor, and even Google Glass⎯covered our office corkboards. At the AUVSI event, we met a new friend and mentor, Young Kim, CEO of Digital Harvest in Pendleton, Oregon. His company is committed to solving some of the most complex and persistent problems that growers encounter. After several meetings, Young encouraged us to start organizing farm technology events of our own. We hosted a small one-day event where ag tech innovators met with local farmers, business owners, and county commissioners to gauge the level of interest in the idea of collaboration. The attendees were all highly supportive. Inspired by those results, we moved quickly to organize our first Precision Farming Expo in the spring of 2014. We rented out the Evergreen Air and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, and invited a select group of speakers and commercial exhibitors. John Deere’s chief roboticist Stewart Moorehead, autonomous vehicle guru Mel Torrie of ASI, ASABE member and Gold Medal winner Ken Giles of UC Davis, and Susan Lambert, the founder of DN2K, all came to share their knowledge, insights, and new technologies for farming. But the attendees were equally important, and we knew that it was essential to have farmers and crop consultants participate. They were the people who knew what was needed in agriculture, and their involvement was key. The data collected from the attendee list showed us that we had a sold-out crowd of primarily growers. In 2015, we moved the Expo to Salem, Oregon, to make more room for the increasing number of speakers, exhibitors, and participants that the event attracted. The 2016 Expo included the fields of spectroscopy and space-based agronomy. Our initial theme was: “Providing Clarity to Farmers.” That continues to be our motto. Along the way, we have learned and adapted to new circumstances. When Oregon became a UAS center, Val and I moved our agency east to Pendleton to work with the test range there. Together with the city and the range, we created the Oregon UAS FutureFarm project as a digital agriculture proving ground for the development of interconnected agricultural systems. The FutureFarm’s mission is to recruit both domestic and international companies to take advantage of the great agricultural diversity found within the range’s 14,000 square miles, the drone-friendly atmosphere, and the forward-thinking growers. Under the FutureFarm umbrella, we also organized a Drone Demo Day, where growers could study a variety of drones in operation and evaluate their respective advantages. Last December, thirty dedicated men and women attended a weeklong commercial drone pilot course held in Pendleton. The FutureFarm project is now gaining the notice of foreign governments. We have been approached by several countries and provinces to share our methods, strategies, and best practices. An international grassroots FutureFarm initiative is conceivable. As we prepare for our seventh ag tech event in less than four years, this Last Word in Resource has given us the perfect opportunity to reflect on our unexpected journey. Frankly, it has been a lot of fun. Our new path has taken us to french fry plants, spectroscopy labs, grain elevators, and drone factories, and we’ve met many smart and dedicated people. We decided to join ASABE because so many of the ag tech innovators and researchers whom we admire are also members. When we learned that we could become members despite not being engineers ourselves, we jumped at the chance. We did not know about Resource magazine when we joined, but reading it has been an added bonus. Agricultural and biological engineers, irrigation experts, drone developers, automation pioneers, soil scientists, viticulturists, biologists, data crunchers, futurists, and farmers have become both our teachers and our friends. We have learned much about farming, and we have profound respect for the hard-working men and women who tend the Earth. Labor shortages, climate change, sustainability, transparency, trade, and compliance are all challenges—increasingly so each season—that farmers and food producers face. However, our experiences of the last four years have encouraged us that together we can meet the nutritional needs of an ever-increasin g population by continuing to connect, share knowledge, and work collaboratively toward solutions. We look forward to hosting the 2017 FutureFarm Expo this August in Pendleton, Oregon. We hope to meet more ASABE members there, and we will continue to tell the world about agricultural and biological engineering, because it’s the key to our future. ASABE member Jeff Lorton, Director, Duke Joseph Agency, Pendleton, Ore., USA, email@example.com. For more information about the 2017 FutureFarm Expo, visit www.futurefarm.tech. Views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of ASABE.
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