Investing in new technology offers risks, rewards
By TIM HEARDEN
RED BLUFF, Calif. -- Michael Vasey is a farmer by marriage.
The 47-year-old spent two decades in business and human resources work before becoming president of Lindauer River Ranch two years ago.
The 600-acre prune, walnut and wheat farm belongs to his father-in-law, Ken Lindauer, who's been gradually teaching Vasey the ropes.
Since he started running the farm, he's taken a businesslike approach to bringing it into the 21st century, installing solar panels, automated irrigation and other new technologies.
"I guess I see myself as a businessman first," Vasey said. "Every day is different. There's always a new challenge, and I like the variety of work."
A key addition has been a new 260-kilowatt solar system that went live in October. Solar panels are set up at three sites on the farm. Two run irrigation pumps and a third runs a dehydrator.
So far, the system has generated 103 percent of the power that Vasey had expected. Whether it has generated savings is still "hard to tell," he said, because it has yet to go through the peak dry season, which typically happens in August and early September.
"We basically run the meter backwards all year to offset one month of production," Vasey said.
"It was more just looking at the continuing rise in the cost of electricity and the economics of it," he said of reasons for installing the solar system.
The farm also installed variable frequency drives for irrigation, which enables crews to electronically set schedules and water pressures.
"A lot of people are still running around opening valves," Vasey said. "We've got ours automated, so we figure out what the schedule is and set timers."
The farm uses underground irrigation lines, which Vasey says cuts its water use by about 25 percent, and "pressure bombs" test how much water stress is in trees by using leaf samples.
For fertilizing, the operation uses a spray rig with an optical sensor that turns the sprayer on only when it's near a tree.
Many factors go into the decision of whether to install new equipment. With solar panels, there's the cost of panels and hardware, available space and what rebates are available, he said.
Such systems are expected to pay for themselves within five years, he said.
Vasey emphasizes that the farm's penchant for innovation started with his father-in-law, Lindauer, who's been farming in the Red Bluff area for some 60 years. Of the farm's 600 acres, 440 acres are in prunes and 120 are in walnuts, with wheat planted as cover before new sections of orchard are put in.
Vasey, who lives on the ranch with his wife, Hillary, and their two children, previously worked at Hewlett-Packard and other businesses. A few years ago, he and Lindauer started planning the farm's transition to the younger generation, he said.
Vasey worked part time on the farm for about five years before taking the reins as president. For advice, he frequently seeks out Lindauer or one of his farmworkers, a few of whom have worked there for 25 or 30 years.
"I had no exposure to farming before I married Hillary," Vasey said. "It's been a steep learning curve. I've been involved in business as a director for 20 years now, but the actual farming part has been new. Ken's been teaching me that for seven or eight years. The business side of it comes fairly naturally to me."
Vasey has also talked with other farmers during his work on the local Farm Bureau board, he said.
"They're very generous with knowledge and advice, and I seek it out," he said. "I'm not afraid to do that at all."
Michael Charles Vasey
Residence: Red Bluff, Calif.
Family: Wife, Hillary, sons Aaron, 16, and Josiah, 14
Quote: "I guess I see myself as a businessman first. Every day is different. There's always a new challenge, and I like the variety of work."