Nestled in the green hills of Salem, Oregon, lies Stuart Olson Farms Inc. – a family farm that dates back to the 1800s when the pioneers were making the journey west via the Oregon Trail. In the spring, blooming branches frequent the farm. Fragile, pink cherry blossoms dance in the wind and sweeten the air with their natural perfume. During the summer and fall, mouth-watering fruits and berries clothe the trees, waiting to be sampled by eager tongues.
In the winter, tiny red and orange berries emerge from hiding in a stunning display of holiday cheer.
Throughout the year, more than 13 different kinds of crops can be found on the property. Although the crops produce yields at different times, all of the plants need attention year-round, making running the farm more than a full-time job. But that doesn’t stop the Olsons from continuing to grow and develop new crops.
Enter the winterberry
Five years ago, Stuart Olson Farms (commonly referred to as Olson Farms) decided to add winterberries to their offerings. “We realized there was a big demand for them, so we went for it,” explains Darin Olson, vice president of the company, who helps his father Stuart manage operations.
Winterberries are considered a high-value, ornamental crop. The farm grows and sells branches laden with either red or orange berries.
“They are used for décor, mainly during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays,” Olson says. “Sometimes they can be seen as little bouquets themselves.”
You will also see them used in wreaths and table arrangements. As a whole, the plants are not extremely difficult to care for, except when it comes to water.
To water, or not to water?
Proper water management is a big deal. “It is hugely important,” Olson explains. “It’s always good to save water. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the pocketbook.”
Overwatering can hurt plant health, affect yield, impact a fruit’s taste and waste a resource that could be put to good use elsewhere. Winterberries in particular are a crop that needs a precise amount of water in order to be successful.
“You want the leaves to fall off, and to do that the plant needs to be stressed – so they need to get just the right amount of water,” Olson says. If you give the plant too much water the plant won’t defoliate and a grower will be forced to commit extra time and money to hand-picking the leaves. If winterberries receive too little water, you risk losing the entire plant.
The Baseline solution
With 13 different crops, the spread of Olson Farms is extensive and requires a decent amount of travel to get from crop to crop. “The main part of my farm is about seven miles away from the winterberry crops,” Olson says.
The drip tubing that water his plants works well, but the filters that strain the surface water that feeds his winterberries need routine cleaning to prevent them from becoming plugged with organic organisms like algae. The more a filter becomes plugged, the less flow reaches the plants; if the filter plugs completely, the winterberry crops will stop receiving water altogether. A plugged filter can seriously damage crop yields, but driving seven miles to check on one crop, multiple times a week, is time consuming.
Olson found a solution to this problem in the Baseline system supplied through Ewing Irrigation. He uses the BaseStation 3200™ controller to take care of this winterberry crop. The control can support up to 200 zones and offers services like onscreen soil moisture graphs and programming and watering history backup options.
“With Baseline controllers, I can watch the water management online and only have to go out to the field once a week,” Olson says. If a filter starts to become plugged, the controller texts him an alert about an area that has reached a low flow. “Moisture sensors help make real-time decisions based on your program criteria.”
Olson has the program set based on an upper threshold. This means that even if he tells the system to water the plants for two hours, if after one hour they sense the moisture levels in the soil are satisfactory, the sensor will shut the water off. “Moisture sensors in the field have helped me run my farm for the last five years,” Olson says. “The system gets the right amount of water to the crops. It doesn’t short the plants or waste water that could be used in other places.”
Another sun sets on Olson Farms. Tomorrow Darin Olson will rise with the sun and start another day doing what he knows best – growing things. “It is a nice feeling knowing multiple generations of your family have successfully done the same thing,” he says. Technology has worked to aid growers in their efforts to feed the world, and in the case of crops like winterberries, to make it a prettier place.
For Olson, the Baseline system has ensured proper water management for his winterberries and has given him back time that can be focused on other areas of the farm.
“I think previous generations of my family would be amazed at the technology that has been implemented into the farm, like the smart controller,” Olson muses.