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LOCAL VENTURE USES SATELLITES TO HELP FARMERS BOOST CROP YIELDS

Hauling computers into cornfields to help with harvesting chores would have sounded strange to Wyoming County farmer Jay Swede even a decade ago.

"I would have thought it was a crazy idea. Why would you ever need a computer out there?" said Swede, who has been working the fields for 18 years -- since he was 12 years old.

But Star Wars technology has invaded the growing fields at Gary Swede Farms of Pavilion.

The 1,800-acre family-owned business is embarking on a cutting-edge pilot program that could bring dramatic change to the way sweet corn and seed corn is harvested. If all goes as planned, the high-tech system that marries computers with satellite technology to monitor crop yield could be on the market by next summer.

Where is this advanced system being designed and marketed? If you're inclined to say Silicon Valley, guess again. The yield sensors for this specialized crop are being developed by a local company that is surrounded by fields, silos, barns and beet graters.

As one drives through lush farmland to reach Byron Equipment Co. just northeast of Batavia, the sights and smells are vivid reminders of the business' humble roots.

It began 19 years ago as a sideline endeavor by two Byron-area beet and corn growers who wanted to keep their crews busy during the winter. They bought a small farm equipment dealership and starting tinkering with some of the machines to make them more suitable for vegetable harvesting.

What a difference two decades can make.

Byron Equipment currently logs more than $40 million in annual sales, employs 175 people (including 90 in Western New York) and sells one-third of its equipment to foreign buyers -- harvesters from Argentina to Australia.

Recent developments have positioned the company for continued growth. Several weeks ago, it merged with Pixall, a Wisconsin harvesting equipment manufacturer. It also has sales and service facilities in Indiana, Iowa, Oregon and the state of Washington.

Meanwhile, Byron Equipment recently rolled out its innovative yield-monitoring pilot program.

Picture a small computer stationed inside the cab of a corn harvester. Through satellite technology, the computer maps out the field using various colors, tracking how much corn is harvested in specific spots. The information will tell farmers which part of their fields are deficient and need more fertilizer or perhaps more pesticides. Likewise, the sensors will also alert farmers as to where they can conserve on these costly supplies.

"It can definitely increase productivity. There are still some bugs to work out, but the technology has come a long way in the past two years," Swede said.

Farmers get 'sticker shock' too

Gary Stich, CEO of Byron Equipment, said the prototypes are being tested by clients in all parts of the country. He's convinced that the new technology will help harvesters improve their bottom line by reducing costs and improving efficiency.

Some larger corporations -- including the John Deere Co. -- are working on the same technology for other crops. But sweet corn or seed corn is a specialized, high-end product. According to Stich, less than 10 percent of all domestically-produced corn is eaten by consumers; most of the corn is used for animal feed and other purposes.

Because the harvesting of sweet corn and seed corn doesn't offer the volume potential of other crops, most large manufacturers are less motivated to spend money on innovations. Byron has been able to carve a profitable niche in this agricultural arena, developing corn harvesters, pea combines and equipment that helps to harvest lima beans and green beans.

Drive into the parking lot of this sprawling plant located on Batavia-Byron Road and you'll see massive contraptions towering 12 feet high. The tires alone on some of these vehicles are six feet high.

For those who think they've experienced "sticker shock" while visiting their friendly neighborhood car dealer, ponder this fact: sweet corn and bean harvesters can sell for $150,000 to $175,000, while pea combines can cost up to $375,000.

"Because our equipment is so specialized and fairly expensive, most of our customers are not farmers, they are food processors," said Stich.

Machines used in Italy, France

Among Byron's most notable clients: Green Giant and Del Monte, two food processors with global presences.

The company has come a long way since its inception in 1969. By the mid-1970s, Byron had transitioned from an enterprise that modified other manufacturers' harvesting equipment to developing its own machines. The company designed and marketed its own self-propelled sweet corn harvester in 1984, then introduced a similar machine for harvesting green beens four years later.

In a highly competitive industry with relatively flat domestic consumption of corn and beens, the manufacturer has plowed significant resources into research and development. Over the past decade, Byron has developed several rubber-track tractors, vehicles that offer a faster, smoother ride and operate more efficiently on wet soil.

Byron also makes and distributes high-capacity hydraulic lift dump carts for the food processing, seed and general agricultural markets.

Stich said the company's impressive growth curve can be partly attributed to its aggressive exporting initiatives. Its biggest foreign market is South America, but Byron equipment is also being used in the growing fields of France, Italy and South Africa. The company recently shipped a $350,000 pea combine to New Zealand and is preparing to send a corn harvester to Mexico within a few weeks.

As many countries in South America and Eastern Europe witness improved standards of living, residents are eating more vegetables. Stich said the change in foreign consumption has increased demand for the company's harvesting equipment.

Stich was recruited by Byron Equipment seven years ago to man the helm during an era of anticipated sales growth and new product development. He was previously working in Pennsylvania where he was involved in the manufacturing and sales of trucks.

Richard Glazier, one of the founders, serves as chairman of the merged company. The Byron resident said the alliance with the Wisconsin-based Pixall would have never happened without Stich's leadership.

"We had been competitors of Pixall for several years. In my opinion, the merger occurred only because of the confidence that Pixall officials had in Gary Stich," he said.

Stich is convinced that New York is making strides in becoming more business-friendly.

"We're encouraged by the progress that the state has made in recent years. It's really a whole different attitude," he said.

Firm works closely with BOCES

Unlike many manufacturers in Buffalo, Byron Equipment has had no problem finding employees to man its 70,000-square-foot plant. Stich said at least two-thirds of the workers are skilled and many of them have worked for Byron for more than a decade.

To ensure that its work force needs are met in future years, the company works closely with the BOCES program, recruits interns from the Rochester Institute of Technology and belongs to the Genesee County Business/Education Alliance.

Stich is predicting another decade of dramatic change in the agricultural arena as corporate Goliaths such as DuPont and Monsanto continue to work on genetically-engineered seeds and plants. But just how the development of herbicide-resistant seeds will affect manufacturers of harvesting equipment remains to be seen.

Farmer Jay Swede agreed that growers will witness even more technological advancements in the coming years, including improved computer-monitoring systems. But he was quick to point out that even cutting-edge advances won't change one fundamental tenet: farming is largely driven by the weather. For example, the soggy spring was followed by a dry July, meaning that some growers will see yields a little lower than average this season.

"When push comes to shove, so much of it still has to do with Mother Nature," he said.