By KENT HOHLFELD
Central Valley Business Journal Writer
STOCKTON — More than 50 years ago, a small company in Eugene, Oregon began offering loggers and farmers a way to keep in touch with their crews in the field. Silke Communications has developed from its humble beginnings to become one of the fastest growing push-to-talk services on the West Coast.
“Northern California is our newest beach head,” said Silke Communications President Jim Silke, Jr.
The company operates in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada.
Push-to-talk radios are similar to walkie-talkie systems that allow businesses in the five states to talk directly to their employees without having to deal with contacts or phone numbers. The system uses a series of towers, similar to cell phone towers, to allow users to talk to others with the push of a single button.
Users can also talk to more than one person, similar to a conference call, without having to dial multiple numbers.
“Our customers are primarily education and agricultural.” said Silke. “It’s useful for communication with trucks for agricultural businesses. We are having some good luck in the Central Valley.”
The service has also been aided by the enactment of several laws in Sacramento. For example, in 2015, lawmakers passed changes to agricultural regulations requiring field workers to have communications to a supervisor whenever temperatures are expected to reach 95 degrees or above.
“They passed a law to provide for farm workers in the field to call for help, hydration and farm management,” said Silke. “It’s an excellent management tool.”
The company has partnered with other services throughout the country to give it national reach.
“We have partners in 14 states,” said Silke. “Most of our customers are served by California as a whole. We have a partnership with a company (to allow access) even in Hawaii.”
The service costs $25 to $27 per unit per month. The individual units have GPS systems installed but don’t have web browsing or text features like a smart phone would.
“We don’t try to be a cell phone,” he said. “Our system is more cost effective for those who need direct, quick communications with a specific person or group of persons.”
Silke now has transmitter stations from Seattle to south of Los Angeles. Growth hasn’t been without its obstacles, though.
“The biggest obstacle has been manpower and time,” said Silke. “We have overcome that for the most part. No matter where we build, we need to build more.”
Geography has also been a challenge. The company incorporated many of the lessons learned in providing service in the tree-lined, mountainous regions of the Pacific Northwest into the relatively flat regions of the Central Valley.
Chester Murphy of Farmington Capital Group in Lodi has used the devices for more than a year. The company deals with a variety of vineyard and agricultural operations in Lodi and the Delta. He said the devices give far better coverage than cell phones in the hard-to-reach areas where his employees often work.
“They work a lot better in Delta,” he said. “Silke communication is solid out there.”
He said cell phone coverage is fine in cities, but in rural areas such as the Delta, it can be a problem.
“(Silke works) in the whole state,” he said. “I don’t know of another service that does that.”
Ben Kolber, owner of KG Vineyard Management in Lodi, also likes the company’s rental program. He said that has allowed him to get affordable use of the radios during the past two harvest seasons.
“They are super reliable,” he said. “The clarity of these radios are better than cell phones out in our vineyards.”
Covering that much area is a challenge.
“We bit off such a big piece of geography,” Silke said. “We expanded where our customers were.”