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January 15, 2010

Documenting sustainability: Software contributes to sustainable management

Peter Mitham
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Awareness ofand interest insustainable farm management has grown since the mid-1990s and culminated in most growers accepting environment-friendly practices as not just socially responsible but good business, too.

But managing business practices to support, document, and chart a long-term sustainable vision is difficult. Record-keeping is commonly perceived as being time-consuming, and as for actually collating and crunching data to pick out long-term trendssmall growers just don't have the staff to devote to it.

There's value in the knowledge, however, which is why Dr. Jeff Dlott, founder and president of Soquel, California-based SureHarvest, Inc., saw an opportunity in the mid-1990s for software to chart the impact of farm management practices.

"There weren't really very many commercial tools available at the time for on-farm data collection and management reporting," he said.

An exception was a system Dr. Cliff Ohmart had developed for use in hand-held devices as part of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission's early work towards a sustainable viticulture program. Then working as a grant officer for the Biologically Integrated Farming Systems program (an initiative of the University of California's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at UC Davis), Dlott was inspired by what he saw Ohmart doing.

SureHarvest was born four years later, in 1999, with the aim of giving growers a system that would help them manage the workflow and gauge whether farm practices were having the intended results.

While record-keeping is often viewed as a time-consuming task, Dlott said most growers have some sort of system in place to track what needs to be done and to schedule workers to do the work. SureHarvest aimed to make sense of the process, in order to support what Dlott calls "data-driven decision making."

"We were interested in how do you structure the process, the workflow, so it's not just data collection, it's how do you get the information you need?" Dlott said.

He points to irrigation as an example.

"I'm going to irrigate. What do I need to know? I need to know how much water was applied before, I need to know some sense of how much water may be in the soil, I need to look out at the weather data," he said. "That's really the decision process all the time."

The official name of SureHarvest's software is Farming Management Information Systema name which Dlott admits is cumbersome but which he believes accurately reflects its aim to manage the people, processes, and technology growers employ in making decisions.

"It's all around optimizing those three to make a decision. It's not just for record keeping," he said.

This is something growers don't necessarily take time to do, robbing themselves of opportunities to measure the impact of their practices.

"At the end of the day, how do you say, 'I put that fertilizer on; did it actually produce the effects I was looking for?'" he asked. Many people don't collect the data, so they don't know if there's a correlation between applications and results.

SureHarvest charges an annual fee ranging from $10 to $35 per acre, with larger acreages enjoying a lower rate. The service aims to pay for itself by shaving at least 1 percent from a grower's annual costs.

Since growers typically work to manage crop risks, applying more pesticides and fungicides rather than less in order to protect a crop, the aim was to first reduce inputs (cutting back on costs and environmental impacts), Dlott said, and then improve the value of the mature crop.

Over the long term, workflows may improve, resulting in labor savings, while having a readily available pool of data can help growers make better management decisions. Being able to document historic yield and quality results may give them an edge in contract negotiations, while knowing when a crop is likely to be ready based on various parameters may prompt grape growers to reduce hang-timesaving 5 to 7 percent in crop volume and boosting overall yields.

"It's sort of addicting," Dlott said. Growers who have used it can't imagine farming without it.

Mine data

Andrew Sundquist of Sundquist Fruit/Strong Twig LLC thinks SureHarvest's systems will provide him access to data he'd like to track. His company has 900 acres of tree fruits in Washington's Yakima Valley. He is also partner and manager of a 240-acre apple and cherry orchard near Pasco, Washington.

"I've been personally looking into SureHarvest because I saw a need to more easily mine data," he said. "We are constantly capturing data in this industry, whether it be at the time of labor or chemical application or during scouting activities. The problem is data mining."

Keeping records isn't onerous; it's the updating and manipulation of data to get the results he's looking for that takes time. And every manipulation of the data increases the chance of introducing mistakes.

By tracking multiple years' worth of data, and facilitating analysis, SureHarvest's system makes it easierand less cumbersometo see what's going on.

"Assuming you have captured the data, you can easily track, for example, your production or fruit quality versus your material or labor applications," he said."You can selectively view historical material applications to determine which programs are more effective. From a management standpoint, it is also another tool to let you know exactly when your work was completed and if that work the best possible application of your dollars."