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Agriculture Discovery Center at Erie County Fair features high-tech combine simulator

The giant combine features a simulator that lets kids feel like they are really rolling through the fields. Creator Heather Sidorowicz and her daughters Anna and Ella tested it out.
HAMBURG — The Erie County Fair is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion, has installed the new, 60,000-square foot Agriculture Discovery Center, dedicated to educating the public about agriculture and its role in society. The $8 million project was funded entirely by the Erie County Agriculture Society and is intended as a yearlong education center that, after the fair is over, will house farm to table programs, trade shows and other events. That building includes many elements, not least of which, a threshing simulator enabled by Southtowns Audio Video, the Hamburg-based audiovisual company.

“Ninety-eight percent of the public is not directly involved with agriculture,” said Jessica Underberg, assistant manager of the Erie County Fair. “The opening of the ADC [is] a world-class stage to target and educate that 98 percent.”

The building itself has areas for both education and demonstration, including space for 250 cattle during the fair or 100 horses, during the off-season. The new milking parlor can hold 12 milking stalls and collect 1,400 gallons of milk per day from the 200 animals it can accommodate daily. Glass lines will carry the milk to containers, allowing visitors to see the entire process, and LED screens track the amount of milk each cow contributes, during a session.

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A robotic milker simulator will demonstrate the latest technology for milking cows, through a program developed by DeLaval. Each cow wears a radio frequency collar, that tells which cow it is, the last time she was milked, her milking information and the amount of feed she is given. Cows come in to be milked voluntarily, and are given feed while they are being milked. If a cow enters the system too soon, she will not be milked by the system, and the gate will open to release her. Each cow can be milked one to six times per day, depending on the setting on that cow’s collar

Also featured in the building are Milkable Mabel’s Stable, which allows guests to try their hands at milking Mabel, the fiberglass cow. The blacksmith shop will feature daily demonstrations by Paul Grezs, the fair’s resident blacksmith.

The 64-seat Harvest Theater will show educational films, the calf-feeding area will let children feed a calf, chicks will hatch in the hatchery and the moo-ternity ward will allow fairgoers to watch a calf being born, on video for those who are not present for an actual birth, since those events cannot be planned.

The building also features a Combine Simulator, a Case 7088 four-wheel drive combine that harvests grain crops and “combines” the processes of reaping, threshing and winnowing the grain. It weighs 40,000 pounds, has a 250-gallon fuel tank and holds 300 bushels of grain. But the most interesting part of this machine, according to Southtowns Audio and Video President Heather Sidorowicz, is the simulation system itself, which features a curved LCD screen and a 32-inch television to create the sensation of being surrounded by the farm, while the combine moves through the field.

“A few months back, Southtown Audio Video was asked to outfit this beast with a way to simulate the experience of cutting and threshing grain,” Sidorowicz explained. Originally, the agriculture society wanted the image projected onto the front windows of the tractor, but that was impossible, due to the brightness of the space.

“The Erie County Agricultural Society did not want anything to hinder the visual of the massive combine. Going back to the drawing board, SAV came back with the idea to install a curved LED screen to match the curvature of the window,” she noted. “The curved screen fills your field of vision when climbing in and sitting behind the wheel, truly giving you the effect of driving the combine. If you look to the right, you see a second screen showing the corn spit into the back of the tractor.”

Installing that equipment was new for the SAV team, and it required what Sidorowicz called “a lot of planning, a lot of ingenuity and a great staff.”

A Hamburg resident who grew up going to the fair who now brings her own children, Sidorowicz said she is excited to see the new center combine technology innovation with agriculture.

“I think it’s the coolest that they’re showing both things. You can go try and milk a cow and then go right next door to the robot and see how that works,” she said. “It shows how technology infiltrates all aspects of our lives, even farming.”

The owner of the 30-year-old audiovisual company took it over from her father a year ago, and her sister also works for SAV, as an installer. She said that working for a family business can be difficult, because “there’s so much emotion wrapped up in it too,” but that she loves working in technology in Western New York, particularly right now.

“For the first time in my life, I’m seeing a Renaissance in this area and in the area of technology, here,” she said. “It’s exciting to be a part of it.”

The Erie County Fair contacted Sidorowicz because SAV already has a relationship with the fair, having worked on projects at the events center, in the past.

“With a project like this, you want someone you already have a relationship with, someone you can trust,” Sidorowciz said. “And installing a TV isn’t that hard, but installing a curved LED screen in a tractor, well, that’s a little different!

“We’re really excited for the [Agriculture Discovery Center] to open, not just because I’ve worked on it, but as residents,” she said. “As a local Hamburg person, it’s wonderful to feel like we’re part of this big anniversary. And we hope people are as excited as we are to see it. I like to say, the kids will love the simulator because it’s immersive. And the dads will love it because it’s a curved LED screen!”

After the fair’s 12-day run is over, the Agriculture Discovery Center will be used as an education center, with a full-service kitchen for farm-to-table education, in a program for prekindergarten-fifth grade students the society will launch in October. In February 2015, the building will also house the Western New York Farm Show and Expo and in May 2015, the International Association of Fairs and Expositions will hold regional and national conferences at the fairgrounds, allowing the fair to show off the site of the third-largest in the country. The Erie County Fair runs through Aug. 17. For more information, visit www.ecfair.org.
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