GRANGEVILLE – Farming work can be good for the mind, body and soul. It also offers a good time to think.
“I was helping my dad pick rocks in a field a couple of years back, and I thought, ‘there has to be a better way to do this,’” said Brent Frei.
Frei, the son of Ron and Glenda Frei, is a 1984 graduate of Grangeville High School who went on to start several technology-based businesses throughout the years.
Frei’s time in the fields with his father sparked the idea for his most recent business endeavor: TerraClear.
Based in both Bellevue, Wash. -- where Frei lives with his five children – and Grangeville, TerraClear is an agriculture-technology collaboration that maps the rocks in a field using cameras mounted on drones and then uses a robotic mechanism to pick up those rocks.
Last year, the company hired local residents to feed thousands of photographs of rocks into the database to help the computer learn about the rocks it needs to recognize.
“The idea is to not only save time and manpower, but also to eliminate those rocks causing serious damage to tractors, combines and other equipment,” Frei explained.
TerraClear includes an 18-person team, with Frei as CEO and Trevor Thompson as president, and five interns, most of whom live in Bellevue, but fly to Grangeville frequently to work hands-on in the field and test their prototypes. They are currently on Prototype 11.
Thompson, who has a military background, said he met Frei through a mutual friend when he and his family were preparing to move back to Seattle.
“I cared a lot about the quality of the team I would work with, and when I spent some time with the TerraClear team, I was in,” Thompson said.
“Everyone who travels to Grangeville loves it,” Frei said. "Here we have access to hundreds of years of farming know-how and innovation. It's the perfect spot to build out our testing and development."
Last year, he purchased office and testing /workshop space on Hill Street (formerly Grangeville-New Meadows Auto Freight and the Billups’ property).
One shop consists of a dirt floor to simulate a field, scattered with rocks and a tractor with a camera and robotic arm attached: Meet P-11, or Prototype 11. The team has access to computers and WiFi in the office space, drones and fields on the Camas Prairie, and the shops and testing site on Hill Street.
“Grangeville is unbelievable,” Thompson said. “It has everything you need -- nice people, mountains, water, and farms. Spending time there is a huge perk of working at our company.”
Frei said he is glad he has the chance to be in Grangeville often.
“It gives me the chance to work, spend time with my family and also continue to share with my kids the lifestyle I grew up in,” he smiled. “I love it here, and so do they.”
Frei also expressed his appreciation for the expertise there is available on the Camas Prairie, both in the farmers and ranchers and their knowledge of the land, and in their proficiency on machinery and the way it best works in area fields.
“There is access to so much real agricultural knowledge right here,” he said. “And I’m convinced I have the absolute best work team.”
Frei hopes to build as permanent a workforce in Grangeville as possible. This includes engineers, pilots and agricultural professionals.
The next step is to refine the robotics and move on to the next prototype.
“The team is creating the next version right now and we will continue to enhance and improve it and test it,” he said.
“We just really want to solve this problem for farmers. It's not a fun part of farming, and to help farmers spend time on more important tasks is really what we're entirely focused on,” he said. “It's exciting because we're progressing at a fast pace.”