Although more than 180 vendors are present at the 17th annual Willamette Valley Ag Expo, this year’s buzz was definitely about the number of new filbert orchards being planted in the mid-valley.

In some parts of the county it seems as though they're popping up on every section corner. That’s because the Willamette Valley added 9,000 acres of new filbert trees in 2016, up from 6,000 in 2016 and 4,300 in 2014.

Mike Wiesner of Wiesner Metal Fab in Brooks was showing potential customers his company’s newest machinery: a multi-purpose orchard truck he believes will create greater efficiency during harvest.

“It’s our first prototype. It rolled out of our shop last week,” Wiesner said. “It will hold about four-and-a-half totes and the box comes off so that after harvest season, it can be set up as a sprayer.”

The truck was commissioned at a client's request. According to Wiesner, similar trucks are used in California almond orchards, but they're too big for local filbert operations.

The machine follows the filbert harvester, which then unloads the nuts into the truck. Powered by a John Deere diesel engine, the truck features four-wheel steering and four-wheel drive, making it highly nimble. It also has a seat that swivels 180 degrees. Although the truck is pulled behind the harvester, its operator can swivel the seat and drive it back down the orchard row without having to turn around.

“This will allow the harvester to keep working without having to go unload,” Wiesner said, comparing it to a field combine feeding its harvest into grain carts.

Its estimated base cost is about $125,000, and orders will take about four months to process.

Delton Searle of Sitech, which installs GPS and self-guidance systems onto a broad range of farm equipment, said demand is rapidly increasing. He pointed to a multi-use utility vehicle equipped with Sitech technology and a paint marking system.

“It is set up to lay out filbert orchards on a grid,” Searles said. “This equipment can be installed on all sizes and types of equipment.”

Searles has worked with Sitech for five years, but has been involved with precision ag production since 1993. As land prices and input costs continue to rise, he said, farmers are constantly looking for ways to increase efficiency.

“For example," he said, "this equipment can help the farmer decrease fuel and labor costs, as well as become much more efficient in terms of applying crop nutrients, pesticides and herbicides."

Searles said the equipment ranges in price from $10,000 to $25,000 depending on level of accuracy. That money be recouped in about one year on most farming operations.

“A big factor I hear from farmers is about quality of life,” he said. “This equipment makes it much easier for them to spend long hours in equipment. Plus, since every one is fully integrated with cell phones and tablets, the farmer can get real-time information not only about the equipment operator, but also about harvest levels, so he can adjust inputs as needed.”

Doug Hiebert of Ag West Supply was telling cherry growers Dennis Brutke of Amity and Ken Askey of Salem about a 500-gallon sprayer. It comes with a 38-inch fan and can be used on a variety of orchard crops.

“But everyone is talking about halzelnuts,” Hiebert said. “There’s a lot of interest.”

His company participates in the Ag Expo every year because it’s a “good way to make contacts and we can follow up with demonstrations.”

Ag West has shops in Harrisburg, Rickreall, Woodburn, Hillsboro and Madras.

Brutke and Askey have been friends for more than 50 years and met while serving in the Army Reserves. Askey later married Brutke’s cousin.

They aren’t jumping on the hazelnut bandwagon and plan to stick with their cherry orchards. Brutke has raised cherries since 1957 and Askey since 1958.

They said machine harvesting has made a world of difference in their operations. Askey has about 40 acres and Brutke about 100.

“I remember the filbert blight a few years ago,” Brutke said. “There’s nothing to say it can’t happen again.”

He’s also concerned because hazelnut orchards are being planted so closely together.

“I think it might contribute to the spread of disease,” Brutke said.

But the two men admit every crop has its challenges. They noted that rain that comes at the wrong time of year can cause cherries to split and decrease their value.

Not everyone at the Ag Expo was interested in new equipment. Ray Ryan and Ed Lupkin, members of the East Albany Lions Club, were intent on telling others about their organization's many service projects.

They were also selling raffle tickets for a new Stihl leaf blower. Proceeds will be used for community service projects such as the youth eye screenings. In addition to the screenings, the club also collects and distributes eye glasses to needy children and adults.

“We go about 1,500 eye screenings per year for kids,” Ryan said.

The Lions Club also supports CASA, the Boys and Girls Club, FISH and 18 other community programs, Lupkin said.

The club’s main fundraisers are the annual 4th of July pancake breakfast and a January gun show.

Jill Ingalls, who produces the event with her husband Scott, said the show is the largest in the Pacific Northwest, attracting farmers and ranchers from Oregon, California and Washington.

“We’ve been doing this 17 years and I’m always amazed at the new technology that shows up every year,” Ingalls aid. “A farmer can analyze soil conditions while operating a combine. It’s crazy.”

The non-profit Willamette Valley Agricultural Association is responsible for the expo, but its proceeds go toward making improvements at the Fair & Expo complex, provide scholarships for college ag students and for the general good of other businesses in the mid-valley, Ingalls said.

Bill Lusk of Ag West Supply chairs the association and vice-chair is Eric Fery of Ag Chains Plus.

The show continues through Thursday and members of the Scio FFA chapter are among many volunteers.

Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.

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