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Drones could be 'game changer' in Oregon wine country, official says

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FILE: Oct. 8, 2011: Zinfandel grapes grow in a Napa Valley, California vineyard that supplies grapes to Frank Family Vineyards. (Reuters)

Jeff Lorton says drone technology is the next big thing in agriculture, and he's determined to make sure it lands in Yamhill County, the center of Oregon's world-class wine industry.

Lorton is the county's part-time economic development manager. He's organized a Dec. 9 "Precision Farming Forum" to introduce the concept to farmers, vineyard operators and nursery managers.

In farming, the potential uses of drones include flying over nurseries to do inventory and identifying areas of plant damage, disease or irrigation problems. Larger drones could carry payloads of pesticides or fertilizer, an application now being tested at vineyards in California's Napa Valley, the agricultural publication Capital Press reported.

"It's a big game changer in agriculture," Lorton said. "The Holy Grail of it is crop diagnostics."

Lorton believes drone technology will spawn a myriad of economic opportunities for spin-off industries, in addition to luring engineers and software developers. He hopes Yamhill County will become a center for the industry. Others in Oregon have similar ideas, notably economic developers in the Pendleton area.

Among the speakers is Oregon State University forestry engineering Professor Michael Wing, part of OSU's new Unmanned Vehicle System Research Consortium. In an Oregon State news release earlier this year, Wing described the state as the perfect spot for UAV testing.

"Within about 100 miles you can go from the Pacific Ocean to seashore dunes, coastal mountains, agricultural valleys, rivers, urban areas, many types of forest, volcanoes, lava fields, alpine peaks, canyons and high sagebrush desert," Wing said.

Other speakers include Ryan Jenson, chief executive of HoneyComb Corp., a fledgling Portland company that has developed a drone intended for agriculture.

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