FRESNO -- Participants at last month's World Ag Expo in Tulare were familiar with debates over the relative merits of Ford versus Chevy trucks, or John Deere versus Kubota tractors.
But a new debate emerged at the world's première farm show: Which is better, Macintosh or PC?
In an industry that's increasingly turning to high-tech tools to assist in the ancient art of growing crops and tending livestock, the growing debate over computer operating systems is another sign of the changing times, said Craig Buxton, chief executive of PureSense Environmental Resource Management.
PureSense sells systems that measure soil-moisture levels using wireless sensors, then analyze and present the data to customers on an easy-to-use, Web-based interface. It was just one of the companies featured on the expo's "Top 10 New Products" list that is taking on the challenge of providing ways to manage the high-precision, data-driven world of modern farming.
Some companies that shared space with PureSense in the new products booth at the ag show used Macintosh platforms; others used Windows-based PCs. PureSense can run on either platform, Buxton said.
"But it's a great debate to have" at the ag expo," he said. "You will see an enormous amount of information technology being integrated into hardware or mechanical devices. All of that means data that someone has to analyze."
With water supplies tightening, energy costs on the rise and increasing competition from abroad, U.S. growers are seeking more efficient ways to run their operations, Buxton said.
And that means opportunity for companies such as PureSense, which has done about 300 installations since it launched about a year and a half ago, he said. The Emeryville-based company recently landed about $4.5 million in investment capital and is in the process of moving its headquarters to Fresno, Buxton said.
Oakdale rancher has product
Advances in farm technology aren't just coming from well-financed software firms. Plenty of farmers are bringing homegrown products to the market as well, such as Oakdale-based Jacobson Remotics.
Jacobson's Field Water Alarm system, which uses remote sensors to alert farmers, via cell phone or radio, about overwatering or underwatering in their fields, was developed by owner Bob Jacobson for use on his family's 100-acre cattle ranch east of Modesto, said his son and software developer, Walter Jacobson.
Besides giving growers an opportunity to sleep at night knowing the alarm system will alert them if irrigation has gone awry, "the other issue is cost -- cost of water, cost of personnel and the cost of fines as well" for mismanaging irrigation water, he said.
Another grower who brought homegrown technology to the show was Tara Porterfield, president of Ag-Biz Solutions. A hay grower from Macdoel, near the Oregon border, Porterfield started working on her farm-management software about seven years ago for her own use, then decided in 2006 to develop it as a commercial product for other growers facing the same record-keeping and reporting challenges.
"The overall goal is to help save you time, because the most important thing is to be out in the field getting work done," she said.
Saving time, money, water and energy aren't the only challenges farmers face. They also face the growing threat of theft of equipment, materials and crops, a problem that Dan Cobb, chief executive of Fresno-based MicroDot Security Solutions, hopes he can help combat.
Cobb's company distributes tiny "data dots" developed by the Australian company DataDot Technology Ltd. They're plastic disks one millimeter in diameter, too small for most thieves to detect, that are laser-etched with identification information that can be read by police with the right equipment.
"It's like putting your own personal DNA on it," Cobb said.
His company has sold the identifying dots to protect items from construction equipment and rolls of copper wire to the tails of lobsters set out as traps for lobster pirates in Maine, he said.
"It's a brand new product in the United States," Cobb said. "Now the industry has to say, 'What can we do with this?' "