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Sensors allow farmers to make precise decisions

Soil moisture sensors buried in the ground, or stations in the fields can detect soil saturation levels, report weather and other data on smartphones, laptops, tablets and other devices.

By Gail Oberst

For the Capital Press

Published on May 17, 2018 9:39AM

Michael Fink is MeasureTek’s operations manager.

Gail Oberst/For the Capital Press

Michael Fink is MeasureTek’s operations manager.

Coleman Agriculture’s hops are improved with soil moisture sensors and automated drying equipment.

Gail Oberst/For the Capital Press

Coleman Agriculture’s hops are improved with soil moisture sensors and automated drying equipment.


Farmers who are still not comfortable with technology are not alone. Agriculture is one of the last bastions of old-fashioned techniques, its practitioners preferring to grab a clod of dirt to decide when or how much to water their crops, as their ancestors had done, according to the owners of an Albany, Ore., data-collection and software company.

But growers who embrace new technology are saving time, resources and money, which makes them more efficient and competitive, say John Hubbard and Michael Fink of MeasureTek.

“We’re here to support agriculture and add to efficiency,” said Fink, the company’s operations manager. “We can provide the data but the decisions ultimately come from the growers.”

Today, instead of guessing from the feel of the dirt, soil moisture sensors buried in the ground, or stations in the fields can detect soil saturation levels, report weather and other data on smartphones, laptops, tablets and other devices with easy-to-decipher graphs and pictures. Using that data, farmers can decide precise irrigation schedules.

Coleman Agriculture’s hop fields and dryers are a good example of a company that in using both simple and more complicated technology to improve their product without increasing costs, energy, water or employee resources. The sixth-generation operation is headquartered in St. Paul but manages 2,400 acres of hops, hazelnuts, seed crops and vegetables scattered around the Willamette Valley, including a hop farm in Independence, Ore. The Independence farm grows craft hops for brewers and distributors including Rogue and IndieHops.

As do nearly 90 percent of MeasureTek clients, the Colemans first installed soil moisture sensors to more accurately report data to field managers, allowing them to remotely activate or deactivate irrigation pumps. Weather stations that predict microclimate changes were then added to the mix, allowing managers to decide precisely how much water to use.

With climate change threatening, saving water will become increasingly important to the bottom line, said Hubbard who works in business development. Within 30 years, food production must increase by 70 percent while decreasing its current use of water, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The Colemans’ initial success with technology inspired them to expand automation in their dryers to speed processing, and to increase quality. Using modified BT Loftus systems that track and report moisture content in the dryer and regulate optimum heat and fan levels, the Colemans can now dry hops consistently faster and at lower temperatures, maintaining the precious oils essential to tasty beers.

No more bottleneck at the dryer, says Fink. Where once, freshly harvested hops might hang too long before being processed, today their flavors can be preserved quickly.

The Independence facility is one of 11 hop companies in Oregon, Washington and Idaho using custom-made energy and time-saving equipment. MeasureTek’s clients farm over 100,000 acres in the Northwest, in operations that range in size from 50 to 25,000 acres. These hops, wine and table grapes, orchards, cranberries and other growers are coming to technology to stay competitive, Fink said.

MeasureTek is the agricultural partner of a technological group whose resources include 180 engineers.

MeasureTek was founded in 1991 by Rob Hibbs, an agricultural engineer who developed tools for growers, using Campbell Scientific equipment. For years, from his customer base in Yakima, Hibbs’ company remained small, providing site-based soil moisture sensors to Washington growers who had to collect the data from local stations.

In 2011, as demand for online and remote controls increased, Hibbs merged with Progressive Software Solutions, which had developed integrated wireless and automated factory operations, including some at the Tillamook Cheese Factory.

Since the merger, the company has partnered with other firms, developing the ResultX, which creates simple templates for the data that users see online. The software earned an Outstanding Innovations award from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. Its latest software package, the MTx, makes reading data and making decisions even easier for field managers, even those who are not proficient English speakers.

Some farmers incorporating this kind of conservation technology may qualify for grants and loans. In addition to training staff with the new equipment, Fink said he can also research funding options for farmers looking to upgrade.

“They’re a great company to work with,” said John Coleman, owner of Coleman Agriculture.

For more information, visit www.MeasureTek.com.



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