By Nathalie Hardy • Columnist • 

Expo to explore future of farming

Wright said growing and processing the finicky pinot noir grape is labor intensive. He said one of his major concerns is an expanding industry dependent on a shrinking labor force, and some of the answers may lie in high-tech mechanization.

That’s exactly the kind of thing Jeff Lorton had in mind when he set about organizing the two-day Precision Farming Expo. Oregon’s first major precision farming event, it is set to kick off Wednesday, April 2, at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville.

Lorton is currently working under contract with Yamhill County as its economic development director, but is staging the event under the umbrella of his Carlton-based Duke Joseph Agency. The county is limiting its role to serving as one of a number of event sponsors.

Early in his contract with the county, Lorton joined County Commissioner Allen Springer in exploring the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs or drones, in local agriculture. He and Springer, who serves as the county’s economic development liaison, decided they were onto something and began promoting the county as a potential economic base for the new industry.

Lorton said the expo is designed to let local farmers inform industry experts about their specific needs, as well as give those experts a chance to scout the area as a possible place to set up shop. He said that would give the local economy a double-infusion, one from the manufacture of the equipment and the other from its application in the field.

Lorton and Springer also teamed up in a successful effort to persuade Near Space Corporation to include Yamhill County sites in civilian UAV testing authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Originally, the program’s so-called Pan-Pacific Site featured Central Oregon’s Warm Springs Indian Reservation, an expanse of Pacific Ocean off Tillamook and a stretch of wheat and cattle country on Oregon’s dry east side — along with sites in Hawaii and Alaska — but nothing in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley. The addition of Yamhill County wine country rectifies that.

The Pan-Pacific Site was one of six approved by the FAA in January, as it continues to develop regulations governing civilian drone use. The successful application was submitted by a consortium consisting of the University of Alaska, Oregon State University and Economic Development Central Oregon, known as EDCO.

Lorton said farming is beginning to look more like Star Wars than The Grapes of Wrath. Already, he said, robots are harvesting lettuce, drones are spotting bugs and assessing nutrient needs from the sky, and wireless soil monitors are transmitting moisture needs through smart phones. A catch-all definition for this data-driven revolution is precision agriculture.

Interest in the drone aspect soared when a National Transportation Safety Board arbiter nullified a longstanding FAA moratorium on commercial drone use earlier this month. “The ruling opens the skies for farmers who want to fly drones over their fields, and sparked interest by angel investors who are scrambling to find and fund the best of the new unmanned aerial system innovators,” Lorton said.

The speaker lineup is led by Young Kim, general manager of BOSH Precision Agriculture and a national leader in farm applications of UAV technology. Lorton has also booked Stewart Moorehead of John Deere Field Robotics, Russ Linhart of Trimble Navigation, Bruce Rasa of Tekwear, Christophe Millot of Wall-Ye France, Professor Qin Zhang of Washington State University, Mel Torrie of Autonomous Solutions Inc., Tim Lachenmeier of Near Space Corporation and Craig Ganssle of Basecamp Networks.

Wright is particularly interested in seeing the debut of Wall-YE’s Vineyard robot, which is scheduled to provide attendees with a demonstration of its pruning prowess.

The robot was created by French inventor and engineer Christophe Millot for use in the French wine industry. The unmanned ground vehicle is capable of gathering and recording data, memorizing every aspect of a vineyard, synchronizing multiple cameras and using its arms to tackle tasks such as pruning and suckering removal.

Wright said robotics could revolutionize the wine industry and address its current challenges, and it can’t happen soon enough for him.

“Really, robotics could save the industry,” he said. “The labor shortage is a big problem and it’s getting worse. When labor availability is dictating your harvest plan, that’s a problem.

“The reality is that the children of our field workers are not choosing to follow in their parents’ footsteps. It’s becoming increasingly noticeable now, at times when we need the most people.”

Wright said he saw the conference as a chance to work collaboratively with those developing the technology.

“I think that’s awesome to know we could have some influence in how the technology is developed for our industry,”  he said. “The technology seems to be there, it’s a matter of getting the right people in the room so those people developing the technology understand what our needs are. This conference is an opportunity for that exchange of information to happen.”

Visit for tickets to the April 2 event.

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