At first glance, the Salem Convention Center looked like it was hosting a tech conference. There were more ties than boots on the attendees, exhibitors were discussing software and data-driven hardware. But the speakers at the Precision Farming Expo talked most about how to feed a growing global population.
The world’s middle class is expected to almost triple by 2050, if growth in Asian countries continues at its current pace. Young Kim, CEO of farm imaging company Digital Harvest, said the American middle class enjoys a lifestyle that needs 33 global acres per person. So if farmers want to feed all those people, they need to prepare now.
“This is not sustainable folks,” Kim said.
That’s where technology comes in. In its second year, the expo brought together drone manufacturers, agriculture software companies and other leaders in the precision agriculture movement to discuss how Oregon farmers can make smarter decisions about their fields quicker.
Oregon drone companies HoneyComb Corp. and Aerial Technology International set up booths to sell unmanned aircraft systems. Others offered to interpret the images the drones capture. Others specialized in ways to enhance soil or make the most of fertilizer distribution.
The gathering also served to hype Oregon as a frontrunner in the race to become precision agriculture’s “home base.”
Jake Jacobs, executive director of manned and unmanned coalition Oregon Aviation Industries, said the state has diverse climates, geography and a workforce already trying to break into the industry.
And Oregon is one of six states to have federally approved drone test ranges, which are located in Pendleton, Tillamook and the Warm Spring Reservation. Those ranges are not fully operational yet, but will be a place where companies can test hardware and software so the Federal Aviation Administration can craft rules about how to regulate unmanned flight.
The FAA announced proposed rules for the industry last month, but the final version is still years away. That means drones are largely grounded until then.
When they can take off, though, Precision Farming Expo organizer Jeff Lorton said it’ll be a big deal not just for the tech companies, but for farmers.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to slow down the brain drain in these rural counties where young people are leaving,” Lorton said.
Indeed, several Future Farmers of America officers strolled the exhibit hall and asked questions about how they could utilize the technology when they inherit Oregon’s agriculture future.