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Lodi growers go digital

Local farmers turning to smartphone, tablet apps to keep track of tasks

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Sara Jane Pohlman/News-Sentinel

Brandon Sywassink checks his tablet computer for a list of tasks to be done at a vineyard on Victor Road in Victor on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013.

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When Brandon Sywassink arrives at a vineyard and hops out of his truck, the first tool he reaches for isn't a pair of pruning shears or work gloves. Sywassink boots up his iPad and opens an app called LandView to see what tasks are on the list for this particular plot of land. This time of year, that might include mowing between each row, tying up vines or repairing wires.

"If we need to clean up the field, get some vines off the ground, I'll send a message to our guys that we need to clean up," he said. Sywassink uses the app for communication within Acampo Ag Service, the company where he works, and to track data about each field.

The stereotypical farmer is traditional, independent and not someone you might picture with a smartphone in hand while driving a tractor. But more and more Lodi-area growers are embracing the role of mobile apps in getting their jobs done more quickly. From harvest calendars to fertilizer calculators to the ability to control the on/off switch of an irrigation pipeline, those in the agriculture industry are finding new ways to put 21st century technology to work.

As a first-generation grower, Sywassink doesn't have technology-free farming habits to transition away from.

"I don't know any other way. I wasn't 12 years old with a shovel and a four-wheeler when I started. I got into this when I was 18 or 19" in the late 1990s, he said.

Having field data, calculators, maps and Internet access out in the field means growers can take fewer trips back to the office to see a printout, and fewer calls to coworkers when a quick message or email will suffice.

"I'm able to cover more ground with less workers to manage," Sywassink said. "It's one less thing to worry about because I know the guys can take care of themselves and answer their own questions."

Another advantage to being wirelessly "plugged in" while in the field is GPS capability. Sywassink will often circle the perimeter of a field with a GPS app to determine the exact acreage. That allows Acampo Ag Service to charge customers for the amount of land they actually have, not the estimate they think is out there, when harvesting or spraying pesticides and fertilizers.

Larry Whitted is an agricultural pest control adviser who swears by an app called Agrian.

Whitted can pull up last season's field information for a particular grower, or the farmer's most recent soil sample results, and prescribe what pesticides to use, how much and how to apply them.

"As you enter the recommendation, it checks what you're doing against the label. It won't let you make a mistake by recommending the wrong product or the wrong dose," he said.

Since the recommendation is electronic, it's simple to send pesticide records to the San Joaquin County Agricultural Center for monthly reports or to search in the archives for last season's records. Fifteen years ago, each recommendation and report was completed and turned in by hand.

Whitted is shocked that doctors and nurses don't use similar technology to send prescriptions to patients and pharmacies.

"This reduces our chance of making errors. It does all of these things that doctors are not doing. There is no possibility to make a mistake from bad handwriting," he said.

Grapegrower Aaron Lange of LangeTwins Winery is no stranger to technology on the move, but prefers to use his all-purpose smartphone instead of a tablet.

Top on his list is a weather program created by the Lodi Winegrape Commission. Users can set alarms to alert them when temperatures fall or rise past a certain degree. If more than a quarter-inch of rainfall hits and you need to do something about it, the service will let you know. The program syncs up with the 16 weather stations in the Lodi Appellation.

Another big help is having all that digital storage space on one's phone while out in the field. Lange uses his smartphone to store maps, row counts and even the yield from last year's harvest.

"Having information from your personal operation available in front of you is great for on-the-fly calculations," he said. "It's been such an evolution from a decade ago. As technology gets better, people are always finding new ways to use it."

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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Sara Jane Pohlman/News-Sentinel

Brandon Sywassink checks his tablet computer for a list of tasks to be done at a vineyard on Victor Road in Victor on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013.

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