MOUNT VERNON — Strategies to help farms stay profitable, how to pass farms to the next generation, and the use of new technologies in agriculture were among the topics Friday at the fifth annual Ag Summit.
Skagit Farmers Supply is using technology — from a robotic fertilizer bagging system to a more efficient corn planter — to reduce labor costs.
“Those investments are paying off much more quickly as the price of labor goes up,” said Tom Boland, general manager/CEO for Skagit Farmers Supply.
Dwayne Faber, who has dairy farms in Burlington and Mount Vernon, said farmers in Western Washington are challenged by having to pay higher wages to workers than their counterparts elsewhere in the state.
One of his strategies to reduce expenses has been to lease land instead of buying it, he said.
“I put all my assets into cows to put money in the area where you’ll get the greatest return,” he said.
He said another challenge facing farmers, particularly in the dairy industry, is negative public perception. He said he uses social media — and has more than 36,000 followers on Twitter — to make sure farmers are heard.
“These are the people you can touch and share your farming story with,” he said.
Faber said farming in Skagit County has advantages, too, such as a moderate climate and the growing regional interest in foods grown on local farms.
Mesman Farm east of La Conner and Hughes Farms off Farm to Market Road tackled the issue of farm succession.
Alan Mesman said ownership of his dairy farm, which started in 1942, has been re-organized six times. His son Ben Mesman is preparing to take it over.
Ben Mesman said they are transferring ownership one step at a time. For example, they are starting with equipment and cows.
Mesman Farm installed a robotic milker six years ago, and has seen increased milk productivity, and savings in grain and labor.
“Sometimes a jump in technology is what will make the next generation attracted to the farm,” Alan Mesman said.
Michael Hughes of Hughes Farms, which grows potatoes, other vegetables and grains, said technology has helped make the farm more efficient. But all family members have to be on board with using it.
“Biggest thing was earning the trust of (other family members),” he said. “I’m trying to succeed and not trying to eliminate everything they’ve done.”
The Genuine Skagit Valley branding strategy — which was unveiled at last year’s Ag Summit and aims to increase recognition of Skagit Valley food and products — is up to 40 members, marketing coordinator Blake Vanfield said. A recently awarded federal grant will help build the program over the next three years.
Two officials from Washington State University spoke on innovations in agriculture.
Assistant professor Lav Khot, an expert in precision agriculture, said drones are being outfitted with sensors to collect data on crop stress, such as from drought or pests.
He said the advantage to drones is that they can fly low over fields and produce images with high spatial resolution. He said this data can help farmers make decisions on irrigation, or the amount of chemicals to apply to a field.
Khot said the overall idea behind precision agriculture is “to produce more with less.”
New technology may also help provide better weather data for farmers. David Brown, director for WSU’s AgWeatherNet, said work is underway to develop an app to provide site specific weather data — down to an individual farmer’s field — and better forecast tools.
To do that, the first step is to add more weather stations in Skagit County, he said. He said machine learning, part of artificial intelligence, will help develop more site-specific forecasting.