2021 | Economy, Grants

Ag-tech creates farmer-centric solutions

Aeroseeder Drone Monmouth

An experimental project in Iowa uses drones to spread seed. Garth Mulkey, owner of Mulkey Farms in Monmouth, provided seed to growers in the Midwest for a similar seeding project.

Mid-Willamette Valley provides fertile ground for innovations

An innovative partnership between agriculture and economic development in the mid-Willamette Valley is promising to flip the script on traditional startup and entrepreneurship activities. The Northwest Ag Innovation Hub aims to create farmer-centric development of technology and solutions.

The grower-focused initiative will connect local farmers with engineers, software developers, and entrepreneurs from across the country who are working to solve agricultural issues, from bulk seeding systems to crop monitoring technology. Farmers would get equity in a company in return for their knowledge.

“We are putting ourselves out there as a living lab for development,” says Shawn Irvine, economic development director for the city of Independence.

“The tech industry commonly develops solutions and then looks for problems. We are building a farmer network that will identify problems and then work as partners with the tech industry to develop solutions.”

“Agriculture is the heart of this region and its economy,” says Erik Andersson, president of Strategic Economic Development Corporation of the Mid-Willamette Valley, which recently received a $469,150 federal grant for the project. “We’ve had food processors here for a hundred years. There’s innovation and product development and markets to be had, and the potential is really exciting.”

The beginnings

The Mid-Willamette Valley is fertile ground for a tech-based initiative. Nearly 15 years ago, the cities of Independence and Monmouth collaborated on an ambitious fiber broadband system to support economic development.

“The project was intended as a catalyst for further economic development for revitalization of the region,” Irvine says. About five years ago,  he began to talk to tech companies and researchers about ways to leverage the system. The potential for smart agriculture kept coming up.

Although agriculture is not a traditional focus of economic development, “as a rural community, it seemed like a perfect niche between urban tech and rural agriculture,” Irvine says.

Blueberry Field

A pilot project from Intel uses sensor-based technology to monitor blueberry crops from harvest all the way through final distribution.

The effort began with a series of ag tech meetups, where people from all sectors interested in improving agriculture could share ideas and listen to experts in the field.

“We had broad community support, with farmers sitting next to Intel people sitting next to state government officials,” Irvine says.

He credits the meetups for a pilot project by Intel that created a sensor-based technology that monitors blueberry crops from harvesting all the way through final distribution.

Innovation catalyst

The project got its next big push when, in February of 2018, funds from Polk County and The Ford Family Foundation helped SEDCOR create a staff position responsible for catalyzing rural innovations. Since then, Alex Paraskevas has worked to build relationships between farmers and tech creators.

The project also has built a relationship with AgLaunch Initiative of Tennessee and Ag Ventures Alliance of Iowa, which allows regional farmers to access a national farmer network.

That relationship is why drones in an experimental seeding project in the Midwest were stocked with cover crop seed from the heart of farming country in Oregon.

Garth Mulkey, owner of Mulkey Farms in Monmouth, provided seed to two different growers in the Midwest. “I’m really intrigued by auto seeding in the Midwest,” Mulkey says. “They use robots and drones, and I’m interested in what will come out of that — what we can use in Oregon.”

Mulkey is one of the farmers who collaborates with the Hub, providing guidance and general input. He considers it time well spent. “I don’t farm the same way my dad did, and when my kids come along, they won’t farm the same way I do,” he says. “Being part of the Hub and talking to other growers highlights what the possibilities are in the future.”

Besides building a regional farmer network, the innovation hub expands networking and events aimed at building relationships and spurring creative thinking. In April 2020, SEDCOR, the Technology Association of Oregon and city of Independence hosted the Ag Innovation Challenge, a weeklong design competition pitching prototype solutions for agricultural challenges.

Pinot eyewear

The April event was the project’s first COVID-era event, and the virtual environment al-lowed participation from more than 70 people across nine states. A design team in Ohio won the competition, pitching a set of tinted eyeglasses for winery workers to differentiate between ripe and almost-ripe Pinot noir grapes, thus improving the quality of the final product.

Spurred by the success of the inaugural event, a second design sprint took place in late February 2021, and three more are planned over the next two years. All are hosted by the Tech Association of Oregon.

“For an economic development corporation to embrace the ag-tech and that entrepreneurial piece is exciting and unexpected,” says Kathleen Flanagan, senior program officer for The Ford Family Foundation.

“Innovation can happen in rural communities. It doesn’t have to be just big city. It may look different here, but it can also thrive.”

For more information about the Northwest Ag Innovation Hub, contact Alex Paraskevas at (503) 931-3148 or alexp@sedcor.com.

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