Nate Krause, owner of Swans Trail Farms, opens the data center housed in a barn in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Nate Krause, owner of Swans Trail Farms, opens the data center housed in a barn in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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Data-driven farming: New tech ‘changes agriculture’

In a new program funded by the CARES Act, computers are helping Snohomish County farmers grow efficiently.

SNOHOMISH — In the century-old cow milking barn, a single rusted harness is all that’s left of the hand-milking station on Swans Trail Farms. Now, a softly whirring metal locker occupies the barn, its contents glowing blue.

It’s the farm’s data center, crunching numbers from sensors all over the property to bring owner Nate Krause data on soil moisture, weather and plant health to his smartphone.

The system is 600 times faster than the low-bandwidth hotspots the farm operated with just two months ago.

Swans Trail is a pilot site for a partnership set in motion by CARES Act funding.

With $1 million in federal money, Snohomish County contracted with seven tech companies and Washington State University to connect agriculture with cutting-edge technology. They’re starting with two pilot sites over the next three to five years: one at Swans Trail Farms and one at Andrew’s Hay in Arlington.

“This changes agriculture,” said Linda Neunzig, who runs the county’s agriculture office.

For Krause, the new technology will allow him to take some of the guesswork out of producing apples, strawberries and pumpkins.

A data transmitter attached to a building at Swans Trail Farms in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A data transmitter attached to a building at Swans Trail Farms in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Moisture probes in the soil can tell him if a block of apple trees needs watering. A testing station gives Krause real-time information on soil samples. A WSU weather station will measure microclimates in the orchard.

If it’s really sunny, Krause puts shade cloth on his trees to keep the apples from getting sunburned. That’s a lot of labor for 4,000 trees. Now he can check the exact microclimate weather on his smartphone, instead of wondering if the coverings are necessary.

“That’s what technology does, it takes out so many of the factors we don’t know,” Krause said.

Snohomish County partnered with Seattle Startup 5G Open Innovation Lab, as well as tech companies like Intel, Microsoft, T-Mobile and others, to launch the pilot sites. The CARES funding will last about a year. After that, the 5G lab will sustain funding for the project, General Partner Jim Brisimitzis said. The company is exploring similar startups in manufacturing and business, and Brisimitzis said he hopes to expand the technology to more farms.

Andrew Albert, owner of Albert Family Farm, speaks at the 5G Open Innovation Lab news conference at Swans Trail Farms on Tuesday in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Andrew Albert, owner of Albert Family Farm, speaks at the 5G Open Innovation Lab news conference at Swans Trail Farms on Tuesday in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Swans Trail and Andrew’s Hay were chosen as pilot sites for their variety of crops and vicinity to I-5, Neunzig said.

Agriculture in Snohomish County is growing in acreage and in the number of farms, county Executive Dave Somers said at a news conference Tuesday.

Those farms will face a host of challenges. Climate change models predict reduced rainfall during the growing season in the coming years, said Gabriel LaHue, a soil scientist at WSU. The technology tested during a pilot phase will help farmers make the most of irrigated water and other resources, he said. In turn, WSU will use the data to inform research.

“So many other industries are way ahead of agriculture when it comes to technology,” Krause said. “This is really marrying technology and agriculture together.”

Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @sanders_julia.

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