FARMDATA: An internet-based production record system for vegetable farm improvement

Final Report for ONE14-225

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $14,689.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Matt Steiman
Dickinson College Farm
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Project Information

Summary:

FARMDATA is a an internet-based database system for user friendly inputting and reporting of crop production records, developed at Dickinson College. This web-based database system includes production records such as seeding, transplanting, harvest, cover crop, compost, fertilization, irrigation, pest scouting, spray activities, packing and distribution records and customer invoicing. The FARMDATA portal, accessible by both smartphone and desktop computer, uses “smart” forms that minimize incorrect records while saving farmer time by making calculations and “remembering” important data such as field sizes, spray and seeding rates.

SARE funds allowed testing and improvements with input from an organic certifier and a year of testing on two commercial farms. Feedback from the commercial implementation provided a list of lessons learned from the farmers with the best result in that the farmers continue to use it.   It is now available to the public for free download via http://sourceforge.net/projects/farmdata/ As of June of 2015 the package has been downloaded 970 times worldwide – approximately 620 of these downloads occurred in the United States.   The sourceforge project page includes a comprehensive users guide and setup instructions.

Outreach for the project has included two presentations at farmers’ conferences, four articles and web bulletins, handout cards, a webinar, and a Facebook users’ group.

Introduction:

Knowledge is power. In the case of vegetable farming, knowledge in the form of crop production data gives the power to improve yields, soils, pest management, and overall farm efficiency.   Certified organic farms are required to keep accurate planting, harvest, and crop improvement records. The actions of diversified produce farmers generate recordable crop data every day, but capturing those records is tedious. Many farmers keep records on paper forms, which have inherent problems, including lost or damaged records, incomplete or incorrectly logged information, and the need to digitize data from paper records at the end of the season.   Data entry from paper forms is time consuming and easily put on the back burner of a busy farming lifestyle.

Thorough data collection leads to efficient farm management, increased profitability, and reduced consumption of inputs and human resources.   For example, cross referencing accurate records of the amount of a crop planted with the total yield for that crop allows a manager to calculate yield per unit area figures, which are used to determine the amount of each crop to plant in following years. This avoids the waste of over-production and the lost revenue of production shortfalls. Furthermore, comparing harvest yields between different fields allows a grower to learn from experience and improve crop production over time. While growers often notice nuances of production in the field, these lessons may be lost and forgotten by the time winter planning rolls around.

Tillage, compost and fertilizer application, cover crop seeding and incorporation, pest scouting, and crop protectant spraying are all activities that generate recordable data, much of which is required for annual reporting to organic certifiers.  At the end of the season, a grower may wish to reference how many times (and when) a particular crop was sprayed, or the quantity of a particular input used to achieve a successful crop. Referencing cover crop seeding rates and timing, in comparison with the resulting biomass of a cover crop at incorporation allows a grower to determine successful soil building practices that fit the farm’s rotation.  

On busy produce farms, many things happen in a hurry, especially when weather limits windows for field work. A grower may not have time to run to the farm office to check seeding or spray rate tables.   Also, growers may neglect to record field work data on disparate paper forms when every minute counts before a storm. If the farmer does not jot down production information at the end of a busy day, these data may be lost and later must be reconstructed at reporting time.    

For these reasons, growers with insufficient record keeping may suffer from mistakes or inefficient practices repeated year after year, resulting in reduced profitability and increased farmer despair.   Inspectors at Pennsylvania Certified Organic routinely struggle with growers who do not keep adequate records. A clear need exists for digital record keeping direct from the field that is fast, user friendly, and tailored to organic vegetable farms.    

Our solution is FARMDATA, a smartphone-compatible web-based database designed for produce farms. FARMDATA is a straightforward, fast and reliable system for digital record capture direct from the field. FARMDATA has user input and reporting pages for field notes, direct seeding, transplanting, harvest from manager-generated harvest list, off-list harvests, tillage, spray, cover crop seeding and incorporation, compost application, and weed, pest and disease scouting. Additional functions include electronic customer invoicing and the ability to delete records, add users, and more. Readers are encouraged to tour the site by visiting http://farmdata.dickinson.edu/guest.php

Developed over five years by computer scientist Tim Wahls, farmer Matt Steiman, and student programmers, FARMDATA was field tested and proven at the Dickinson College Farm (DCF) during the 2013 growing season, and has been considerably refined and improved since then. Using iPhones and desktop machines, DCF staff capture over 90% of plantings and harvests, 100% of cover crop seedings, 100% of sprays, 100% of compost applications and 100% of sales invoices in a permanent, searchable digital format.  

Prior to FARMDATA, DCF managers struggled for years with incomplete paper records that were reconstructed and painstakingly digitized at season’s end. Our present data collection abilities allow rapid live updates to our crop records database by multiple users in the field. This project has facilitated an accurate data set, with easy end of season data analysis and reporting for organic certification compliance.

FARMDATA saves time in daily activities as well.   Spraying and cover cropping record input forms are pre-loaded with field sizes and spray and seeding rates. These functions allow for quick decision making in the field without the need to look up product labels or other tables. Input forms automate calculations based on simple user inputs. At DCF, in several cases the speed and convenience of FARMDATA’s input forms was key to getting field work done before foul weather or darkness, while also guaranteeing that the spray or seeding data is permanently recorded.

FARMDATA minimizes recordkeeping errors. When DCF used paper forms, errors were common and presented a challenge to record digitization at season’s end.   Crew members mislabeled fields and crop units or omitted data. FARMDATA’s smart forms prohibit incomplete records, and extensive use of dropdown menus greatly minimizes data input errors. When crew members log harvest details, they must choose from fields where FARMDATA has records of specific crops being planted. This traceability is also convenient for annual organic inspections.

Our SARE funded project involved taking FARMDATA to a wider audience. We solicited constructive feedback from Pennsylvania Certified Organic to make the system more useful for organic inspectors. To reality check the utility of FARMDATA on commercial farms not associated with academic institutions, we provided a working copy of FARMDATA to two local growers and made improvements to the software based on their feedback.    Following these improvements, we released FARMDATA as an opensource project for free public downloads, and conducted a widespread outreach campaign.

Project Objectives:

1) Improve the platform to ensure it is a practical tool for farmers

Do this by
a. Partner with Organic Certifier to improve FARMDATA:

Lee Rinehart of Pennsylvania Certified Organic will provide feedback on how system can be useful to certifiers and inspectors.

b. Beta testing through partner farms.

Test FARMDATA on 2 commercial farms as well as continue on teh Dickinson College Farm to provide feedback on improvements and how farmers find it is to use. Elaine Lemmon (Everblossom Farm) and Will Brownback (Spiral Path Farm).

2) Launch public free source version of FARMDATA

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Will Brownback
  • Elaine Lemmon
  • Lee Rinehart

Research

Materials and methods:

1) Partner with Organic Certifier to improve FARMDATA:

At the inception of the project, the development team met with project partner Lee Rinehart of Pennsylvania Certified Organic. We gave Lee a full tour of FARMDATA and collected his feedback regarding how the system could be improved to benefit organic certifiers and inspectors. Lee was impressed with FARMDATA and made several requests which were implemented and are described below in the “content improvements” section. An informational article written by the co-PI’s describing FARMDATA and how to access it appeared in the Spring 2015 PCO newsletter, linked here (page 10): http://np.netpublicator.com/?id=n86718211. At the Dickinson College Farm’s 2014 organic inspection, PCO inspector Dave Bingaman had an easy time reviewing the farm’s records due to the quick search functions of FARMDATA. Lee Rinehart estimates that FARMDATA will cut organic inspection time by one third or more. As of the June of 2015 PCO has not elected to host a FARMDATA database for their clients, but the offer stands to help them establish one in the future.

 

Beta testing through partner farms:

Core partners: After initial team meetings with partner farmers Elaine Lemmon (Everblossom Farm) and Will Brownback (Spiral Path Farm), Co-Principle Investigator Tim Wahls (hereafter TW) set up customized FARMDATA databases for each grower. Co-PI Matt Steiman (hereafter MS) met with each grower several times throughout the 2014 season to assist with farm staff training and pushing through initial data entry hurdles. MS and TW maintained regular contact with both growers via email and by monitoring their farm databases for progress. Several new features and speed improvements (discussed below) were added to FARMDATA based on suggestions from each grower and data entry challenges that were realized through our support activities.  

In 2014, neither farm achieved their stated goals for data entry due to a combination of factors – coincidentally each farm lost key staff members early in the season (packing house manager at SPF, field manager at EBF) and thus were hobbled more than usual at critical points of the production year.   Both farms progressed through the initial field and crop setup phase. Spiral Path Farm did achieve a complete set of greenhouse (flat) seeding records thanks to delegation of this task to the greenhouse manager.   Late in the season Will Brownback did update his field seeding records and added some harvest data to his database. Elaine Lemmon went offline mid-season and did not revive interest in the project until late fall. Our approach was to maintain regular contact with both growers and offer support regularly, but also, understanding their situations, we avoided pressuring them too hard out of concern that they would drop out completely.   Apparently this was somewhat successful as both indicated their intent to continue using FARMDATA in 2015:

In December of 2014, Will Brownback wrote: “I would like to continue with Farmdata in 2015.  I believe FARMDATA can be a valuable tool for logging required GAP and Organic Certification data.  It also has the ability to help farmers make sound, data driven decisions that affect the bottom line.  While I found it personally challenging to find the time to enter the data that would ultimately help me, I did manage to implement a system by the end of the season that should aid in 2015 entries.  I have found on my farm, it works best for certain employees to take ownership over certain data entry.  This should, in theory, help lighten the load for me in 2015.   

As a general review of Farmdata itself, I would say that it does not have the polish and speed that most smartphone users will be used to when compared to other apps(non farm related).  However, that does not take away from it’s overall effectiveness.  I would recommend FARMDATA to those farmers that are serious about wanting to manage lots of data over a single platform.  But, as I continue to learn, data is only useful if you actually enter it.”

 

Will has indeed continued to use FARMDATA into the 2015 season. MS met with Will at his farm late in the winter to go over some new features, and Will in return made further programming requests which were implemented by TW. As of June of 2015, Spiral Path Farm has logged a complete current-year data set for their direct seeding, flat seeding, transplanting, and harvest records, as well as a 90% complete record of their tractor spraying activity.   At the time of this report, Will summarized his sentiment as “The Farmdata pilot period has worked well for Spiral Path Farm.  We use Farmdata as a tool to track seeding, planting, harvesting, and spraying.  With the exception of harvesting, the collection of data has been streamlined and is saving us time.  I am able to make more accurate decisions with regard to seeding and planting thanks to the data we have collected.  The spraying calculator is especially helpful in not wasting product or “guessing” how much product to use.”

Spiral Path Farm has also agreed to take over financial responsibility for the internet server that hosts their FARMDATA interface (previously covered through grant funds). Everblossom Farm and two other growers from the pilot project also share this server – they send a proportional payment to Spiral Path Farm for the cost of their web hosting.

Everblossom Farm has also made a sincere effort to use FARMDATA, though facing somewhat bigger barriers to implementation. At the end of 2014 Elaine Lemmon wrote: “Here’s the deal on FARMDATA for me this year: 

1) It’s always tough for us to introduce a new process into our fairly rigid schedule. I failed at this and failed to follow up with employees to make sure they were prioritizing it.

2) There is some redundancy of data entry between Small Farm Central’s member assembler that I use and FARMDATA regarding harvests. This made me put off entering harvest data into FARMDATA.

3) My staff this season turned out to be incredibly inexperienced and difficult to communicate with. This made me less inclined to spend time making sure they were entering data.

4) I continue to think that FARMDATA has a lot to offer us with regard to identifying our profitability and saving us time. It does require the proper staff and a manager that will remind and follow up. I will need to get over the fact that harvest data is a bit redundant with member assembler.

5) We at Everblossom Farm are going to use FARMDATA for our 2015 season because we believe, in the long term, it can help us improve our efficiency and profitability.”

MS met with Elaine and her assistants in February of 2015 to go over new features and train the new staff. Together we discussed strategies for success, including delegating data entry to specific people and making clear decisions up front about which data points were important to record for their farm goals. Everblossom Farm got off to a strong start with data entry for 2015 (Seeding, transplanting, harvesting, and labor) but then abruptly stopped using the service in mid-April as the pressure of the growing season heated up. Elaine explained this as a shortage of skilled labor on her farm, which causes her to be always behind, with no time to spare for data entry at present. She stated that Everblossom Farm does intend to continue with FARMDATA going forward, but at present she is too busy to follow through due to the pressures of her core responsibilities. Elaine does believe that FARMDATA is worth the trouble and will help make her farm more profitable and efficient, but she has struggled to make time to complete her data entry goals.

Despite the lack of a complete data set, Elaine Lemmon and her staff did make lasting contributions to FARMDATA’s improvements through their user comments and suggestions. Elaine’s closing survey is attached in the supporting document titled Partner Farm Survey.

In a nutshell, lessons gleaned from our experience at the Dickinson College Farm (DCF) and working with the partner farms are:

  • It takes more than one season to realize the benefits of FARMDATA. Accepting partially complete data sets in the initial year is par for course.
  • Delegation of data entry to qualified junior staff is vital to success – relying solely on busy top managers for data entry is destined for failure.
  • Data entry needs to become a habit, part of the culture of the farm. For example, at DCF we don’t consider a harvest to be complete until the data have been logged. This fact is repeatedly drilled into our field crew and requires manager follow up, especially early in the season.

The Dickinson College Farm now has more than two years’ worth of field and sales data digitized through the FARMDATA portal. We have realized significant benefit from this data set in end of year crop planning and analysis. The speed of data analysis facilitated by FARMDATA’s automated reports, and the ability to transfer these reports to MS Excel for further analysis cannot be understated. Having these data at our fingertips has allowed us to glean new lessons about our production system and make decisions for management changes to improve efficiency and profitability. The automated graphing functions have proven to be very useful for farm-related presentations and reports. In addition to making our organic inspector smile, we have found that FARMDATA significantly eases the burden on our farm management team when compiling annual reports required by Pennsylvania Certified Organic.

Pre and post project survey results for each of the partner farms are attached in supporting documents, including a questionaire and spreadsheet summary of their rate of digiatal record capture. 

Small Farm Central Pilot:

Pittsburgh-based Small Farm Central is a widely used commercial web services provider geared towards direct market produce farms.  In January of 2015 MS initiated a meeting with managers at Small Farm Central (SFC) to discuss pairing our field data collection capabilities with their other farm business services. This idea came about through conversations with SFC grower-clients at outreach events, as well as the fact that our partner Everblossom Farm runs their CSA business website through smallfarmcentral.com and reported some overlap in harvest data collection. The project team feels that widespread adoption of our work is most likely if professional tech support and training are provided by a commercial or non-profit entity that has the staff and expertise to support a large number of growers and to continue to upgrade the system as farmers’ data needs evolve.

SFC founder Simon Huntley received our approach with interest and agreed to organize a free webinar for SFC clients and the general public. On February 19, 2015 we broadcast the live webinar to a worldwide audience of over 60 growers. The presentation included discussion, power point slides, live screenshots of FARMDATA in action, and responses to growers’ questions. The webinar is archived here: http://memberassembler.com/hub/farmdata-webinar

Given the strong interest in the webinar, SFC agreed to set up a server to run FARMDATA for a pilot group of farmers at no charge, with the intent to see how it goes for a year before they decide whether or not to offer the database system as an additional service to their clients. Under our agreement for the pilot, TW set up the database software, and TW and MS are providing tech support via email and a Facebook users group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1408906732746605/     We originally planned to offer only 15 spots in the SFC pilot, but with strong interest, all involved agreed to expand the offer to include 35 farms. As of June of 2015, ten of these farm accounts (29%) are still active, with records entered in planting or harvest tables into May and June. 20% of the farms that entered the pilot program started entering data but dropped off before May, and 51% of the pilot farm accounts show no data entry at all in the core tables (seeding, flats seeding, transplanting, harvest).   An informal survey of the farm managers with active FARMDATA accounts yielded some interesting comments – these are compiled in the supporting documents section of this report.   These results, as well as the mixed success rate of our two partner farms, beg the question, “Why do some farms follow through with FARMDATA while others lose interest?” Co-PI Steiman offers the following based on experience and conjecture:

  • All produce growers are inherently busy people, some to the point of regular exhaustion. It can take several years to adopt a new technology, especially one that is not essential to day to day farm survival. Our farm’s experience with crop planning spreadsheets was that it took at least five years to go from buying a very useful spreadsheet template from another grower to putting it fully into practice. This duration was not due to lack of desire, but lack of time, mental energy and a failure to prioritize this activity at the correct time of year.
  • Any hurdles in the data entry system become obstacles to progress that can quickly turn off a busy grower. TW and his students have done monumental work to make FARMDATA bug free, and have quickly reacted to any bugs reported by users. This is good because we have seen that even on our home farm, users’ tolerance for system errors is very low – if data entry does not happen smoothly field workers naturally give up, and recordable incidents are easily lost.
  • One unforeseen hurdle that we believe may have set back some growers is the seed order/ variety inventory function that was added at the request of Pennsylvania Certified Organic. This optional advanced function is admittedly tedious in the initial setup phase and seemed to hang up many of the new growers in the SFC pilot group. In retrospect, it would have been best to deactivate this optional function for brand new FARMDATA users in order to facilitate a rapid setup and adoption of the more basic core functions (seeding, planting, harvest, labor, invoicing, etc).
  • There does not appear to be any direct correlation between size of operation and success rate – we have active users in both the very small and very large farm scales.

The FARMDATA software remains available for free public downloads to the open source community through http://sourceforge.net/projects/farmdata/ regardless of the long term result of our relationship with Small Farm Central.  TW and MS are receiving no compensation from Small Farm Central for their efforts, this work is being done pro-bono in the interest of long term success of the project. 

Research results and discussion:

Improvements and upgrades to FARMDATA:

Tim Wahls and his student programming team made tremendous progress on adding substantial new features to FARMDATA (as well as enhancing existing features) during the grant period. Several of these features were suggested by our partner farms, some were technical enhancements, and many others were developed by Matt Steiman as he and the Dickinson College Farm crew used FARMDATA on a daily basis. These features include:

Content improvements

  • A real-time irrigation dashboard that allows multiple users to simultaneously see which fields are currently being irrigated and how long they have been receiving water. Additionally, the irrigation suite includes a report that color-codes fields by need for irrigation.
  • A full suite of pages for packing produce from the field into inventory, distributing produce from inventory and viewing current inventory.
  • User-configurable sales targets for electronic (paperless) invoicing and distribution.
  • Labor tracking in person hours, searchable on a per field, per crop and per task basis (requested by Spiral Path Farm). The labor table is automatically linked to harvest and field planting data entry portals, so that labor for these common tasks is recorded as a matter of course.
  • A full suite of pages for compost accumulation, maintenance and application (requested by PCO).

  • A comprehensive “Field Record” for each planting field, to show all activities taking place in any field over a user selected date range (requested by PCO). This feature is intended to mimic the way that PCO recommends certified farmers set up a paper notebook, with one page per field per year, in which they can document all activities and provide easy reference during an organic inspection. Prior to this request, FARMDATA held field-specific records in individual tables that were not easily visible all at once.
  • Countless time saving and aesthetic upgrades to harvest, cover cropping, tillage, and spray pages.
  • Automated graphing displays for harvest and sales records
  • Seed ordering and inventory.  This feature allows users to track their seed orders and seed inventory, easily convert an order to inventory when it arrives, and document searches for organic seed.  Further, FARMDATA automatically generates seed codes to be written on seed containers to facilitate tracking, and automatically decreases seed inventory appropriately when direct seeding and flats seeding records are entered. This feature can be used for cover crops as well as vegetable seeds (requested by PCO).
  • Adding a spray queue feature for tractor spraying records (at the request of Spiral Path Farm).  This feature allows a manager to enter mixing and spraying instructions for tractor spraying to be done by an employee, and for the employee to initial and “check off” each spray job as it is completed.
  • Integration of edit and delete features directly into ordinary reports (at the request of Spiral Path Farms).  This allows administrative users to make corrections directly when they see an erroneous record, rather than having to re-navigate to the record through the administrative interface.
  • Adding optional succession/generation numbers to seeding and harvest records to allow tracking of multiple seedings of the same crop.  This was done at the request of several members of the FARMDATA Facebook group.
  • Adding price information to distribution records at the request of a member of the Small Farm Central pilot program.

 

Technical advances

  • New user interfaces for both the desktop and mobile versions. The new mobile interface makes FARMDATA look and feel like an app on a mobile device. Speed of operation improvements were also made to the interface based on suggestions from both partner farms.
  • Hardening FARMDATA against common security risks (primarily SQL injection and cross-site scripting attacks). A manual backup-to-file feature was also added based on suggestions from Everblossom Farm.
  • A configuration page that allows administrative users to select and de-select FARMDATA modules whenever they wish. This allows a farm to start with a minimal version of FARMDATA and add additional modules (irrigation, fertilization, labor tracking, …) as needed.
  • A “backdater” interface for rapid user friendly input of harvest and field planting records that were not captured in real time, and a rapid setup interface for initial setup of new farm pages. The need for these features was realized through work supporting the two partner farms in 2014.
  • Highly automated installation, upgrade and initial setup scripts for FARMDATA to ease the installation process.
  • Release of FARMDATA as an open source project. The project homepage is: https://sourceforge.net/projects/farmdata/    To date the package has been downloaded 970 times.
  • Installation and configuration instructions for FARMDATA, as well as a full user’s manual. All three of these documents are available on the FARMDATA wiki: https://sourceforge.net/p/farmdata/wiki/Home/
  • Scripts for upgrading an existing FARMDATA installation, and for adding a new farm to an existing installation.  The significance of the latter script is that it allows multiple farms to share one FARMDATA server, significantly reducing costs for web hosting.  Additionally, the installation script and instructions now account for the case where the webserver and database server are different machines.  Several of our users (not in either of the pilot programs) have accounts with web hosting companies that set things up this way.
  • A complete overhaul of the user interface to make it more uniform on the desktop and mobile devices, to increase font and user input component sizes (at the request of some of our senior users), and to fix formatting and spacing problems on mobile devices.
  • Integration of Google Translate to support a Spanish translation of FARMDATA.  Key pages (harvest, seeding, labor) were significantly re-engineered to work better with Google Translate, and much of the wording on the site was changed to facilitate better translation.  For example, “Flats Seeding” – which Google translates as “Seeding in an Apartment” – was changed to “Tray Seeding” (requested by several attendees at outreach events).

  • An attractive and memorable logo for FARMDATA to be used on the site and in outreach materials developed by Emily Bowie (2014 Dickinson College Farm apprentice).

Timeline of project

  • January: (prior to SARE award, activity not charged to grant): MS and TW) met with Will Brownback, Spiral Path Farm for initial discussion & customization requests
  • March 20: Project team hosted initial setup meeting with Elaine Lemmon, Everblossom Farm
  • April – December: Project team maintained regular contact with farmer partners via email, phone and in person. Upgrading, fine tuning & debugging of existing pages and interface continued throughout the period.
  • April 11: Project team met with Lee Rinehart at PCO. “Field report” display development occurred in the week that followed.
  • May 13: MS met with Elaine Lemmon and apprentices at Everblossom Farm for staff training and brainstorming
  • June 4: MS worked with Will Brownback on data entry and staff training at Spiral Path Farm
  • June 7: Follow up meeting at Everblossom Farm, assistance with data entry (MS). “Backdater” rapid data entry interface development occurred in the week that followed.
  • July 24-30: Development of irrigation dashboard and reports, compost accumulation & maintenance pages (project team).
  • October 31: MS trained Megan Rulli (Piney Mountain Farm) – TW set up new farm page.
  • November 4: Logo developed. TW posted FARMDATA project to Sourceforge. Downloads began.
  • November – December: Development and testing of seed order, inventory and reports. TW added cover crops to seed inventory and developed users’ manuals and download instructions. TW developed configuration page and rapid startup interface for new farmer pages.
  • December 11: MS presented FARMDATA at Penn State Extension’s Advanced Organic Farmers seminar, Easton PA.

2015

  • January 8: MS met with Simon Huntley and Q Roth at Small Farm Central offices in Pittsburgh to pitch FARMDATA SFC partnership. TW joined the conversation via email and phone in the following days.
  • January 29: MS and TW present FARMDATA to a packed room at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, PA.  The audience response is enthusiastic – we answer many questions during the presentation, and spend about 40 minutes after the presentation answering questions in the hallway.   Project team wrote article detailing FARMDATA for the Proceedings of the conference.  (Presentation and article are attached as supporting documents in Outreach section.)
  • January / February: MS visited with partner farmers at Spiral Path Farm and Everblossom Farm to go over new features, discuss data entry success strategies for 2015, and train new staff. TW implemented new feature requests for Spiral Path Farm in following days
  • February 4-7: At PASA’s Farming for the Future conference, MS distributed over 100 handout cards advertising FARMDATA webinar and free downloads URL
  • February / March: Submitted articles on FARMDATA to PCO’s Organic Matters newsletter and to the Penn State Extension Vegetable Gazette:

 http://np.netpublicator.com/?id=n86718211 (page 10):

http://extension.psu.edu/plants/vegetable-fruit/news/2015/farmdata-an-internet-based-smartphone-compatible-records-management-system-for-produce-farms-2013-free-and-open-source-to-the-public

http://farmhack.net/forums/farmdata-farm-crop-planning-and-record-keeping-webinar-recording

  • February 19: MS and TW conduct a webinar on FARMDATA.  The webinar was hosted by Small Farm Central, and had 62 “attendees”.  The webinar generated a lively conversation – we had planned on spending most of the webinar demonstrating FARMDATA features, but ended up answering questions about FARMDATA for most of the time.  During the webinar, we announce an expanded FARMDATA pilot program.  The program is free for farmers for one year, with Small Farm Central paying for the server.   Link:   http://memberassembler.com/hub/farmdata-webinar
  • February: Article covering FARMDATA webinar appears in Lancaster Farming newspaper
  • February 24: We launch the expanded FARMDATA pilot program for 30 farms.  A few more are added over the following months, for a current total of 35.  About 2/3 of the farms have made at least some use of FARMDATA, and about 1/3 are using it actively.   TW handles all installation, maintenance and support for this server.
  • February 26: We launch a closed Facebook group for FARMDATA.  Conversation is initially lively, and we use the group to provide significant technical support and as a venue for discussion of new features.  Traffic on the group has tapered off in recent weeks – presumably as users become more proficient with FARMDATA.
  • March/ April: Development of “FARMDATA Espanol” Spanish translation feature.
  • April and beyond: Continual refinements to user interface and responses to grower feature requests by TW and student programmers
  • April: An informational article written by MS and TW describing FARMDATA and how to access is published in the Spring 2015 PCO newsletter
  • April: Article describing FARMDATA appears in Foodtank.com http://foodtank.com/news/2015/04/farmdata-creators-aim-to-increase-farm-efficiency-in-the-digital-world
  • June: FARMDATA is featured in Growing for Market alongside COG Pro (a commercial service for organic farm records management)

Research conclusions:

  • Customized working copies of FARMDATA internet database system provided to two farms (Everblossom Farm and , Spiral Path Farm). EBF and SPF received extensive one on one contact and support for one and a half growing seasons.
  • 35 farms recieve free access to FARMDATA through Small Farm Central server administered by TW.  These and several other farms receive free tech support from the project team. 
  • FARMDATA system and code available for free public downloads by any farmer or farm support agency, via https://sourceforge.net/projects/farmdata/ with 920 downloads as of June 15, 2015.
  • Successful outreach campaign of presentations, in person communication and handouts, articles, and web resources. Timing of peak downloads of FARMDATA from sourceforge site coincide with project team’s most concentrated outreach efforts in February 2015.
  • FARMDATA content & interface modified significantly to reflect the needs of organic certifiers, two core partner farms, and several additional growers participating in a 2015 pilot with Small Farm Central. Current FARMDATA version is substantially improved compared to the 2013 version. The most recent version of FARMDATA can be viewed at http://farmdata.dickinson.edu/guest.php
  • Dickinson College Farm used analysis of records collected through FARMDATA to make changes to the farm production plan for 2015 resulting in likely improvements to farmer quality of life and the operation’s profitability. Spiral Path Farm has also begun to use collected records for farm improvement.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

December 11, 2014 Matt Steiman presented FARMDATA at Penn State Extension’s Advanced Organic Farmers seminar, Easton PA.

January 29, 2015: MS and TW present FARMDATA to a packed room at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, PA.  The audience response is enthusiastic – we answer many questions during the presentation, and spend about 40 minutes after the presentation answering questions in the hallway.   Project team wrote article detailing FARMDATA for the Proceedings of the conference.  (Presentation and article are attached as supporting documents in Outreach section.)

35 farms recieve free access to FARMDATA through Small Farm Central server administered by TW.  These and several other farms receive free tech support from the project team. 

February 4-7, 2015: At PASA’s Farming for the Future conference, MS distributed over 100 handout cards advertising FARMDATA webinar and free downloads URL

  • February / March: Submitted articles on FARMDATA to PCO’s Organic Matters newsletter and to the Penn State Extension Vegetable Gazette:

 http://np.netpublicator.com/?id=n86718211 (page 10):

http://extension.psu.edu/plants/vegetable-fruit/news/2015/farmdata-an-internet-based-smartphone-compatible-records-management-system-for-produce-farms-2013-free-and-open-source-to-the-public

http://farmhack.net/forums/farmdata-farm-crop-planning-and-record-keeping-webinar-recording

February 19, 2015: MS and TW conduct a webinar on FARMDATA.  The webinar was hosted by Small Farm Central, and had 62 “attendees”.  The webinar generated a lively conversation – we had planned on spending most of the webinar demonstrating FARMDATA features, but ended up answering questions about FARMDATA for most of the time.  During the webinar, we announce an expanded FARMDATA pilot program.  The program is free for farmers for one year, with Small Farm Central paying for the server.   Link:   http://memberassembler.com/hub/farmdata-webinar

February 2015: Article covering FARMDATA webinar appears in Lancaster Farming newspaper

April 2015: Article describing FARMDATA appears in Foodtank.com http://foodtank.com/news/2015/04/farmdata-creators-aim-to-increase-farm-efficiency-in-the-digital-world

June 2015: FARMDATA is featured in Growing for Market alongside COG Pro (a commercial service for organic farm records management)

Successful outreach campaign of presentations, in person communication and handouts, articles, and web resources. Timing of peak downloads of FARMDATA from sourceforge site coincide with project team’s most concentrated outreach efforts in February 2015.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

In 2014 a labor tracking feature was added at the request of Spiral Path Farm. The labor table is linked to the harvest input portal, so that when a user inputs a harvest record, labor data (number of workers, hours or minutes worked) must also be logged. This results in some very useful data on person-hours per harvested unit for each crop. When the cumulative harvest data for the entire season (or multiple seasons) are analyzed, crops can be compared in terms of their marketable value versus labor cost for harvest. (Other labor costs such as weeding and trellising may also be tracked on a per crop basis, but these must be logged manually by a crew leader).

At the close of 2014, the Dickinson College Farm ran harvest reports for each of our major crops and compared their sales value with the labor cost to harvest.   Using this information, we were able to realize that heads of lettuce have a 20% higher dollars per harvest hour value than spring mix at our farm.   Considering this, plus the fact that labor costs for weeding spring mix are much higher than lettuce, we greatly reduced the quantity of spring mix grown for our CSA customers in our 2015 crop plan, replacing it with more easily grown and harvested fancy leaf lettuce heads. A similar analysis of the harvest records allows us to derive yield per bed foot and dollars per bed foot figures for each crop. Prior to our use of FARMDATA, these figures were unavailable to us and could only be estimated. Using FARMDATA’s easy “download to Excel” button on the harvest report, MS was able to process and analyze this valuable information from the 2014 harvest tables in about an hour. A consolidated spreadsheet is attached in the supporting documents.

FARMDATA also includes automated graphing features that permit quick analysis of the percent of total sales accounted for by each crop in an attractive pie chart. A sample graph is attached in the supporting documents. For a better look at an interactive graph, please visit http://farmdata.dickinson.edu/guest.php   Click on ADMIN > VIEW > GRAPHS > INVOICE and then enter a date range (for example, January 1 2014 to December 31 2014). Holding a cursor over any section of the pie chart will display the cumulative dollar value for that crop over the date range selected.

Farmer Adoption

Please see discussion of farmer adoption under Objectives / Performance Targets above.

Farmer quotes:

“I’m going to sit in on your webinar about the farmdata project. I’ve been poking around the tool online and it’s pretty awesome, and something other farmers have been looking for here as well. Seems much more user friendly and practical than ag-squared… and mobile! Awesome!” – Mary Oldham

“I think that the FARMDATA platform is by far the most user-friendly, complete, comprehensive, and integrated system for record keeping that I have found yet. I really want to make strides in using all of the different pieces of it and having an integrated set of records for the farm. We are learning to be more disciplined with it and I know that with time it will become second nature. The difference between FARMDATA and other record keeping systems is that it is so easy and you always have your phone on you. There have been so many times when we’re out in the field and say, ‘well when did we plant this crop’. In the past, we would have had to go back to a notebook and that just might not have happened. But now you can just pull out your phone and instantly pull up any record. It is things like that that make FARMDATA beneficial on a daily basis, not just later this season when we expect to look back at it and learn from the season.

 

I hope to be able to incorporate this more thoroughly into our operation. I’ve already been telling other farmers at our market about it and I think there could be an opportunity to get them on board with it…maybe host a training if that’s something that could be offered virtually or in person. Hopefully FARMDATA will be available in the future or we can set up a platform locally.”   – Mary Oldham

 

“This is great.  Thanks you for developing this and sharing.  NCAT has put this up on our site to share.” -Chris Lent, NCAT Agricultural Specialist

“The update to the spraying queue is working great.  I really love farmdata for helping properly calculate the spraying.” Will Brownback

“Just THANK YOU!  We have so wanted to better track all of our operations, and the proprietary systems out there just don’t seem to do it so we’re VERY excited about the potential here — great work and keep it up!” – Robinette Farms

 

“Awesome simple process for our size. Thx!!” – Vicki Zilke

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

FARMDATA is not an app, but an interactive database that lives on internet servers. As such, use of FARMDATA requires access to the internet. The rationale for having FARMDATA live on the internet is that this facilitates multiple users making live updates to the database at the same time, whereas an app that places the whole database on one users’ phone would be much more limited in scope.

Farmers who do not use the internet due to cultural restrictions or do not have effective cellular data coverage at their farms are limited in their ability to make use of this project.  Downloading and establishing FARMDATA databases does require some advanced computer skills, whereas an app might facilitate easier setup for new users.

Adoption of FARMDATA by a commercial or non-profit tech services firm will also facilitate easier access to a wider audience, since that firm could handle database setup and tech support in a streamlined manner. Presently this is under consideration by Small Farm Central pending the results of a one year pilot trial by 35 farms. If they elect to add FARMDATA to their commercial services, ideally coding work will be done to integrate harvest and sales features of FARMDATA with existing software, thereby reducing redundancy in data entry for farmer clients.

The project team at Dickinson College continues to use and improve FARMDATA, and will continue to support external user questions via email and through the Facebook users forum at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1408906732746605/  

Outreach for the FARMDATA project has led to a possible spinoff partnership. Penn State Extension Horticultural Specialist Steve Bogash learned of the FARMDATA project through personal communications with Matt Steiman at 2015 winter conferences. In June of 2015 Steve met with the project team to request development of a web-based database to be used by extension agents for documenting client farm visits in a shared digital format. This database will ideally include GIS location information of any crop health issues, farmer information, recommendations, images and more. Tim Wahls accepted this request. He and his students will begin work on the project (tentatively called ACRES – Agricultural Contact Record Entry System) in the fall of 2015.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.