The Tri-Cities scored a coup of sorts when organizers of an influential ag tech conference decided it would be better to hold it in the Mid-Columbia than in its Oregon hometown.
The Precision Farming Expo is a two-day gathering of some of the top names in agriculture technology. With support from Washington State University, the expo is Jan. 7-8 at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick. Attendees must register in advance at www.precisionfarmingexpo.com.
Jeff Lorton organized the first tech-oriented ag show in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 2013. The Tri-Cities, he said, is simply a better fit, both because its agricultural sector is bigger than Oregon’s but also because its business and education leaders are more interested in agriculture-related technology.
The Columbia Basin sits at the heart of a three-state, $22 billion agriculture industry with Washington representing nearly half the total. Oregon and Idaho have $8 billion and $5 billion industries respectively.
$4.01 billion Washington state wheat crop
$2.2 billion apples
$1.3 billion milk
$792 million potatoes
More importantly, WSU, with its robust agriculture-related academic and research programs, recognizes the importance of farm-focused technology, he said.
Alexis Holzer, associate director of economic development for WSU, attended the Oregon version and decided the topic was ripe for study at home. Washington, she said, has perfect conditions to foster ag tech — a strong community of farmers and thriving aerospace and information technology sectors.
Both offer intriguing technology that lets farmers better monitor growing conditions and in turn, reduce the use of energy, water and fertilizers. The state also leads in cloud computing, data management and data storage. All are critical to taking reams of new data and turning it into tools farmers can use.
Technology, she noted, is nothing new to farmers. From aerial drones monitoring crops to soil moisture sensors and business management tools, technology plays a major role in the daily operation of the state’s 37,000 farms.
“People sometimes say we’re trying to create a smart farm. Farms have been smart for a really long time. Farmers have been using technology for a long time,” she said.
People sometimes say we’re trying to create a smart farm. Farms have been smart for a really long time. Farmers have been using technology for a long time.
Alexis Holzer, Washington State University
The event offers growers and vendors a chance to brush shoulders with drone pioneers such as Yamaha Motor Corp. and Zeiss, a German manufacturer of sensors that monitor the performance of John Deere tractors.
More than 30 sessions will cover emerging technology, investing in ag tech, unmanned aerial systems, vineyard mechanization and more.
But Holzer hopes it serves as more than an informational session for growers.
She wants Washington’s economic development leaders to take note of agriculture-related technology in their planning, seeing it as a lucrative adjunct to one of the state’s key industries. Washington’s agricultural sector topped $10 billion in 2013, a record, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.
Three of its signature crops were billion-plus industries on their own: Apples ($2.2 billion), milk ($1.3 billion) and wheat ($4.01 billion). Potatoes reached $792 million.
Washington’s top economic development priorities don’t directly address precision farming. But Holzer said it is embedded in its aerospace and high tech goals. As the state gets a better grasp on what is and is not ag tech, it can recruit and support firms with the potential to offer good-paying jobs, she said.
As Washington state gets a better grasp on what is and is not ag tech, it can recruit and support firms with the potential to offer good-paying jobs.
“Washington state wants to be a champion of that conversation,” she said.
At the Tri-City Development Council, or TRIDEC, leaders are thinking about what they can do to encourage ag tech.
“It’s something we need to investigate further to see if it would make sense to target some of these industries,” said Carl Adrian, president and CEO.