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Feeding the World More Efficiently – Alford Farms’ High-Tech Mission

When thinking about high-tech career options, farming may not immediately come to mind. But one Washington farmer, James Alford, is showing the world just how efficient and high-tech farming can be. The third generation owner of Alford Farms, James and his family have been growing potatoes, corn, wheat and other seed crops in Pasco, Washington since 1954. In addition to feeding the world, Alford and his family takes their responsibility as stewards of the land seriously. Producing higher yields using more efficient, sustainable methods is top of mind for Alford Farms.

In keeping a close eye on the technologies and innovators that are creating jobs and growing our economy in the Pacific Northwest, PacTech (a coalition of civic and tech leaders that works to ensure investment and adoption of high-speed Internet access) often sees trends that cut across industries—farming is no different. One of the most powerful changes that high-tech tools are enabling is the ability to focus at the individual level. Instead of monitoring classrooms, teachers can monitor and plan for the needs and progress of individual students. In addition to relying on study results, doctors can get better, more accurate information about each individual patient. Instead of monitoring the irrigation of fields or geographic areas, James Alford and other farmers like him can monitor the health of individual plants and animals.

In their efforts to find new, better ways to gather information about their land and crops, James and his family use a wide array of state-of-the-art tools and technologies. The versatility and precision of tools available to farmers today is stunning, if not surprising.

For example, Alford uses John Deere’s pioneering (no pun intended) JD Field Connect. This system includes a network of weather-sensing probes that are installed in his fields. A smartphone app allows him to monitor a variety of environmental metrics and make timely decisions about irrigation needs and changes, all from a smart phone, anywhere in the world. This tool has incredible precision—using it, Alford can even monitor the moisture of the soil at different precise depths to understand exactly how irrigation impacts his crops. It’s obvious how a tool like JD Field Connect can help farmers preserve precious water resources—but as water makes up a significant portion of the “input cost” of any farming enterprise, it can also help lower operating costs, freeing up capital for Alford to invest in new tools, grow, or hire more employees.

Once Alford has the information needed to make an irrigation-related decision, he then has to deploy the information quickly and make precise changes to his irrigation—changing the direction (or “pivot point”) of a system or amount of water applied to a certain area. He uses Valley Variable Rate Irrigation systems to adjust the amount of chemicals and or water used in different sections of a field based on topography, soil and yield data. This helps him avoid over-saturating boggy low points or shady areas of his fields, reducing runoff and preserving precious environmental and capital resources.

One of the most exciting and cutting edge technologies for consumers—the use of drones—is old news to farmers like Alford. For years, farmers have been using drones to monitor and assess the needs of hundreds of plants or animals at a time. But as drone technology has become more refined over the years, drone cameras have been improved to the point that they can monitor and assess the health of individual plants from the sky, helping farmers ensure that not just every field, or every area of a field, but every single plant is profitable.

But Alford isn’t just using innovative tools; he’s also helping to create them. In 2015, Alford Farms teamed up with scientists from Washington State University to study the effects of Low-Energy Precision Application (LEPA) and Low-Energy Spray Applications (LESA), two methods which were found to improve irrigation efficiency by ten to fifteen percent. These two new tactics resemble the drip irrigation hose you might have in your backyard garden, or a spray head that’s lowered to just above the height of the crops, respectively. Both have been used by farmers in the south and drought-ridden areas for some time, but are new to the Pacific Northwest. Alford and others hope that with more information about these techniques’ efficiencies available, more farmers will use these models of irrigation to reduce runoff and avoid deep percolation—when the water from over-saturated crops drains deep into the earth’s aquifers. Alford’s farm is the first in Washington to deploy these technologies on a large scale.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Alford Farms’ use of high tech tools to bring a job that’s as old as civilization into the 21st century. With technologists like James Alford at the helm, the efficiency and yield of our farms and our ability to feed the world can only grow with time. If you’d like to learn more about the technologies used at Alford Farms or see them in action, please join PacTech for our upcoming roundtable discussion with U.S. Representative Dan Newhouse, to be hosted with the Pasco Chamber of Commerce at Alford Farms on June 28th.  Contact the Pasco Chamber at 509-547-9755 or [email protected] for more information or to RSVP.

Categories Blog | Tags: | Posted on June 27, 2016

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