Mobile technologies make it easier to manage
|Photo Courtesy of Farm Works Software.|
|The TitanRT features a larger screen, a feature that can push the price of hand-held units up; selecting mobile technology often comes down simply to grower preference.|
There are so many ways that technology can aid in growing operations these days, from organizing records to tracking disease and insect pressure to tallying harvests to monitoring employees. The best news is that, in many cases, new mobile technologies can fit in the palm of your hand. This extreme portability allows users to take the technology out of the office and into the field or warehouse. From there, they can access records or record data, which can then be transferred back to a computer system and into any number of different software applications. Following is a look at just a few of the hand-held technologies being employed by growers around the country.
“Our first program, Trac Mate, was first introduced in 1999,” explains Brian Stark, marketing manager with Farm Works Software (www.farmworks.com). “At the time, the hand-held computers lacked memory and the screens were very hard to see in direct sunlight.” Improvements in hand-held technology over the past several years to boost power and performance have led more growers to adopt mobile technology as an important part of their farm management system, he says.
Using Trac Mate, for example, growers can select field names, equipment and supplies from a drop-down list. “When entering text or numeric data, the entire screen turns into a keyboard,” Stark explains. “This makes it easy for somebody with big fingers for entering data. When the grower is finished entering the data, they simply take the hand-held to the office and synchronize it with their desktop computer.”
The data is transferred from the hand-held unit to the office computer and imported into the company’s Farm Trac software, which then organizes all farm records and allows users to print chemical, fertilizer, seed and harvest reports. Few growers have the time necessary to become expert computer programmers, so the key is simplicity of use, says Stark. “If the software isn’t quick for entering data, it would be a worthless technology.”
The company also offers Site Mate, another program designed for mobile devices. “Since most growers own or have access to a GPS receiver, Site Mate is a low-cost option for doing mapping on the farm,” Stark explains. “This allows a grower to easily create maps of field boundaries, weed areas, tile lines, spray paths, soil sample locations or anything else needed.” The upfront cost can usually be quickly off-set by eliminating the need to hire consultants for these jobs.
In addition, says Stark, the Site Mate software can be upgraded to do variable rate application. “The variable rate application [VRA] allows a grower to apply fertilizer or chemical to the areas of a field needing it the most, thus reducing input costs and increasing yields.”
Farm Works offers the mobile technology hardware used to take advantage of the software. Current models range from a low-cost HP iPAQ to more advanced hardware called the TitanRT. Stark says that larger screen sizes tend to drive the price of hand-held units up, and that selecting mobile technology often comes down simply to grower preference.
“What we’ve created over the years is an application that can really capture different aspects of both production and grower data,” explains Dion Harste of AgCode (www.agcode.com).
Bar codes—typically printed out on a sheet of paper—can be employed by users of the AgCode system for two purposes. First, they can be used to control the hand-held unit. “We use the bar code sort of like a function key on a computer keyboard,” says Harste, explaining how bar codes can be used as a navigational tool. “When you scan one bar code, it will know to save a particular record; another bar code will tell it that you’ve moved to a different field; and so on. And, bar codes can also be used in a more traditional fashion, to represent aperson or a certain block of a field or a piece of machinery as a way of entering information.”
Growers have two or three options when selecting a hand-held unit to work with the AgCode system. “The platform that has overwhelmingly taken over the industry is Windows Mobile,” says Harste. AgCode has recently begun to promote the Trimble/TDS Nomad line of hand-held units, but customers are not required to use that particular brand/model. Some units have bar code scanners built into the units themselves; in other cases, it’s an add-on feature.
Once an AgCode user has captured data with a hand-held unit, it is synchronized to a Web database. “That Web application then allows them to manipulate the data into reports, to track different aspects of the operation.”
The company also provides a pre-management process where the grower can establish quickly whether they’re on or off target based on the specific tasks that they had planned preseason. Growers begin by creating a general plan for their expect-ations—how many workers will be needed and where, how fast they will work, when activities will take place, what types of materials and equipment will be used, etc. Next comes “task planning,” where the plan gets applied to specific fields. Those two steps come together to create a very specific farm plan and budget, which can be used to create schedules and work orders. Then, out in the field, the user of the hand-held unit can call up to-do lists. They also use the hand-held unit to collect data on exactly what is being done and when; what equipment is being used; how much workers are working; when chemicals are being applied; and so on.
Using the collected data and comparing it to the preseason plan lets growers know exactly how they’re doing. “That allows the grower to compare exactly where they are, whether they’re on budget, and to see why they might be off: whether they’re not moving as quickly as planned, or chemical prices went up, etc.” It’s better to find out the answers to these questions in real time rather than at the end of the month or season, Harste stresses.
Orange Enterprises (www.orangesoftware.com) offers a system called Pocket Jill that runs on hand-held units utilizing Windows CE. Users in the field can use the mobile device to track information, which is then “synced” to a PC back in the office and into the company’s Tiger Jill program. “The data can include pesticide application; soil, crop and cultural activity; GPS; trap counts; irrigation events; and other variables,” explains the company. “Tiger and Pocket Jill perform as a field data collection system that enables management to collect sampling, scouting and other information. Pocket Jill uses mobile computing technologies to collect soil tests, plant growth and tissue samples, sugar brix data, weed and disease identification, and yield estimates; as well as all applications, fertilization, irrigation and more. Pocket Jill retrieves data from remote locations with bar code scanning and GPS technology.”
Also, because Pocket Jill can communicate wirelessly with the main office computer, information recorded in the field, which includes GPS data coordinates, is immediately available to update company records. The hand-held units can retrieve information as well as record it, providing growers in the field quick access to data to help make operational decisions. “You can connect to the outside world from almost anywhere. You can update your office with your latest activities directly from the field,” explains Orange Enterprises. “No more reliance on notes or failing memory that just leads to inefficiencies.”
The Pocket Jill system can also be used to collect worker information, including hours worked, crew assignments and work completed. As with other farm data, the payroll information is transferred from the hand-held unit to the program in the office. From that software, growers can manage every aspect of farm operations, from employees to chemical applications to soil testing to harvest information. Historical records of all areas of farm operations can also be easily accessed.
Mobile FarmWare (www.mobilefarmware.com) created its PieceWorker data collection system in 1999. “Since that time, it has collected hundreds of thousands of individual records detailing the hours/pieces worked by employees,” the company explains.
Currently, Mobile FarmWare is using Opticon hand-held units to collect data as part of the PieceWorker system. “They were designed based on military specifications,” explains Eric Jackson, software support specialist with the company. “They can handle a drop from 1 meter onto hard concrete, and they’re water-resistant to a certain degree. They’re pretty durable. We’ve been using the same unit here on our farm for three years—it’s scratched up and pretty dirty, but it still works.”
The hand-held units need to be able to handle the rough-and-tumble environment of a growing operation, because to perform their data collection task they must work alongside employees out in the field or in the packing facility.
“It keeps track of labor-hours worked and, if they’re doing piece-rate work, the number of pieces they have performed during a given amount of time,” says Jackson. Typically, users scan bar codes with the hand-held computer to tell it what action is being performed. For example, different bar codes can be used to identify different employees, and to indicate whether that worker is clocking in or out. “Then they would scan a job code, which would tell the unit whether it’s an hourly job or a piece-rate job. And then, if they’re tracking locations, categories or groups, which can be broken down to include fields, crops or even blocks of a field. For example, within a pepper field, there might be different types of peppers,” he adds.
Bar codes are generally printed out on plastic ID cards. “That way, every time the employee brings in their bucket or walks through the check-out line, they just present their ID card,” says Jackson. The system is much more convenient and reliable than attempting to track similar infor-mation with hand-held records. The biggest advantage comes in the ability to use the information gathered without the need to re-enter it in an accounting program.
“The data that’s collected with PieceWorker can be transferred into several different accounting programs, such as QuickBooks or our own Windows Accounting Made Simple,” Jackson explains.
Jackson says that on most farms, the scanning is handled by a packinghouse manager or someone out in the field on the tractor or truck who is collecting buckets. In cases of large operations spread out in different parts of a field, for example, multiple hand-held units can be used simultaneously to record data on the job, as long as they’re set up to record the same job, he explains: “The hand-held units don’t talk to each other, they each operate independently. But, all that information can be married up later, once you download it into the computer.”
In a diverse growing operation, the hand-held units can be set up as different “companies” to track jobs in the field versus in the packing facility.
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.