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Technology helps transform local business


IMBLER — Curt Howell said he has seen big changes in both farming and the seed industry since he started Oregon Trail Seeds in 1993.

Among the biggest changes in the seed industry on the farm end include “much more automation, much bigger equipment and consolidation of farms,” he said. “Where there were three or four (farming clients), now there’s one.”

New technology is required on his end of the seed business, too, and “it all costs a lot of money,” he said as he nodded toward a WestBred seed counter in his office.

The counter works with a computer program to recommend how many pounds of seeds to plant per acre. It’s meant to replace the old method of calculating, which Howell described: “Counting 100 seeds by hand, weighing them, doing the math and coming up with a figure for seed count.”

To demonstrate the expediency of the new technology, he poured some hard red winter wheat seeds through the counter. It quickly calculated 228 seeds, and 10,290 seeds per pound.

Oregon Trail Seeds contracts with seed growers and conditions seed for resale by cleaning and sometimes treating it with fungicide and insecticide. Then the Imbler company packages the seeds into anywhere from 50-pound sacks to bulk amounts loaded directly into trucks. Howell installed a 100-foot-long scale so trucks can be loaded at the scale without going over the weight limit.

Howell sells to local farmers and wholesale customers. He ships seeds to Idaho, Washington, Texas, Colorado, Nevada and California, but most of his customers are in Oregon and about 70 percent of his trade is in Northeast Oregon: Union, Baker,
Wallowa and Umatilla counties.

“A lot of what we do is specific to a particular climate: rainfall, elevation, soils,”
Howell said. “What (seed) works really well here may not work in Umatilla or
Wallowa counties.”

He listed his best sellers: “We sell more wheat in terms of raw volume. Second is barley for hay or forage. Third is triticale, another forage crop for animals.”

Business challenges

Howell addressed challenges in the seed business, including being subject to market conditions.

“If there’s too much wheat and too much corn like now, it’s not profitable. Then farmers will switch the crop,” he said.

At that point, Howell could lose a seed producer.

“We have the same challenges every small business has. You have folks who are slow to pay. That can easily be from $5,000 to $20,000. We have the challenge of finding employees. Everybody has those challenges.”

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer