April 2020
Labor-savers, latest technology highlight Idaho Ag Expo By Dianna Troyer, Contributing Writer

Confronted with labor shortages, potato farmers were relieved to learn of the newest automated innovations to help them operate at peak efficiency. About 200 exhibitors showed their products at the 41st Eastern Idaho Ag Expo, hosted at Idaho State University in Pocatello in January.

Chase Kidd, dealership and international sales representative for Industrial Ventilation Inc., shows the features of storage control panels that monitor temperature and humidity levels in cellars. Photo: Dianna Troyer

The number of farmers and exhibitors at the expo impressed Travis Blacker, industry relations director for the Idaho Potato Commission.

“People from Canada, Mexico, Japan, Europe and throughout the U.S. came,” he said. “Potato prices are the best they’ve been in a few years, so people are optimistic about this year and next year, too.”

Several booths attracted farmers who were interested in labor-saving devices and equipment. A new sturdy sensor can be buried with a potato and provide real-time information to growers about what the tuber needs for maximum growth. An optical sorter can be used in fields — not just packing plants. Using a vacuum chamber, a separator gets rid of dirt clods and debris while processing 5,000 cwt of potatoes hourly.

Growers were captivated with the Soiltech Wireless, a sturdy lemon-yellow plastic sensor resembling an 8-inch thermos. Buried at the same depth as potatoes, it transmits information about soil temperature, moisture, and humidity. In the fall, it can be dug up and provide data about bruising. In storage, it continues to provide information.

Seed potato farmer Keith Jorgensen learns about an optical sorter from Max Elliott, a representative for TOMRA. Photo: Dianna Troyer

“It’s programmed with the NRCS soil data and GPS software, so it knows what type of soil it’s buried in,” explained Ehsan Soltan, chief executive officer of Soiltech and a manufacturing designer. He has been developing the Soiltech for about two years in collaboration with potato farmers in southeastern Idaho.

“Based on the information it transmits, you can irrigate in real time,” Soltan said.

Brad Nielson, agronomist for Walters Produce in Sugar City, Idaho, said, “At $350, it’s a lot cheaper than bruise balls we’ve used, which are easy to lose because they’re the same color as a potato. I’m definitely interested.”

Kevin Burgemeister, farm manager at Driscoll Brothers Potatoes in American Falls, Idaho, dropped the Soiltech on the floor and kicked it to test its durability.

“It should last about five years,” Soltan said.

Josh Bair, product specialist with AGCO, describes the benefits of a webbed tractor to Clark Hamilton, chairman of the Idaho Wheat Commission. Photo: Dianna Troyer

Besides the Soiltech, Burgemeister said he was impressed with the labor-saving features of a webbed skid steer.

“There are so many attachments,” he said. “Forks on the front can be used to clean cellar tubes instead of manual labor. There’s a backhoe attachment and another for picking rocks. With the webbed tracks, you can move snow.”

At the TOMRA booth, a new optical sorter for field use intrigued Keith Jorgensen, who grows 19 varieties of seed potatoes in Grace, Idaho.

“I’d use it for sorting and grading potatoes going into and coming out of storage,” Jorgensen said. “Labor is a major issue for all of us.”

The high-capacity TOMRA 3A sorter quickly sorts potatoes by size while removing green potatoes and debris such as dirt, rocks, bones or sprinkler heads.

“We just released it in January,” said Max Elliott, of TOMRA’s office in Sacramento. “Optical sorters have been used in processing plants for years, but this is the first time we’ve added stabilization features so they can be used in the field.”

Growers were also impressed with LOCKWOOD Manufacturing’s mobile VACS-8 separator. Using a vacuum chamber to reduce bruising, cleaning tables and containment center, it removes rocks and dirt clods at a capacity of 5,000 cwt of potatoes per hour.

Brad Nielson, agronomist for Walters Produce of Newdale, Idaho, talks about the Soiltech with Ehsan Soltan, chief executive officer of Soiltech. Photo: Dianna Troyer

In neighboring Blackfoot, about 30 miles north of Pocatello, Spudnik hosted a tour of its manufacturing plant before the expo started. An eight-row windrower and a 12-row planter manufactured at the Spudnik plant were popular, said Darren Neville, a mechanical engineer for Spudnik.

“We had people from all over the U.S. and Canada,” Neville said.

AGCO’s product specialist Josh Blair showed the features of its webbed tractor to Clark Hamilton, chairman of the Idaho Wheat Commission.

“It has a continuously variable transmission and the latest technical features,” Clark said.

The expo in the university’s arena, held in conjunction with the Idaho Potato Conference in the student union, are popular with growers, said Carla Armentrout, associate for Spectra Productions, the company that manages the events.

“Every year, we have a waiting list,” she said, estimating there were more than 220 exhibitors at both the expo and potato conference. “We had strong attendance at both events.”

—Top photo: Darren Neville, left, a mechanical engineer for Spudnik, talks with Aaron Savage, a sales rep for LOCKWOOD, an equipment manufacturer. 

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