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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Crop Production: crop rotation, cover crops, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer
  • Pest Management: biorational pesticides, chemical control, economic threshold, field monitoring/scouting, integrated pest management
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture

    Proposal abstract:

    FARMDATA is an internet-based database system for inputting and reporting crop production records, including seeding, transplanting, harvest, cover crop, compost, pest scouting, spray activities, 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.

    FARMDATA was launched at the Dickinson College Farm in July of 2013 and resulted in a dramatic increase in the capture rate and consistency of planting, harvest, and crop improvement records. Partner farmers expressed sincere interest in the project upon viewing the FARMDATA guest page (http://farmdata.dickinson.edu/guest.php) which prompted us to seek funding to expand the reach of the project.

    This feasibility study will provide two Pennsylvania organic produce farms with their own working version of FARMDATA. Project investigators will work with the farmers to improve the program to meet their needs, resulting in a best fit for each partner farm and an enhanced final version of FARMDATA. The project will also collaborate with Pennsylvania Certified Organic to tailor record formats for certification requirements.

    Effectiveness of the project will be measured by assessing the partner farms’ level of record capture before and after adding FARMDATA to their daily practice, as well as surveying the farmers for feedback regarding usefulness, user friendliness, and efficiency of record collection. Project outreach will be through articles for PASA and PCO newsletters, and a presentation at the 2015 PASA conference or PVGA convention.

    THE PROBLEM:

    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 and complicated. 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 tedious, 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 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.

    PROPOSED SOLUTION

    Our solution is FARMDATA, a smartphone-compatible web-based database designed for produce farms. FARMDATA is a simple, 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. In 2014, a field labor tracking function will be added for crop cost analysis. Readers are encouraged to tour the site by visiting the guest page at http://farmdata.dickinson.edu/guest.php Developed over three 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 season. Using iPhones and desktop machines, DCF staff succeeded in capturing over 90% of plantings and harvests, 100% of cover crop seedings, 100% of sprays, and 100% of compost applications 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. In 2013, managers used FARMDATA to make in-season assessments of crop productivity as soon as fields were harvested. As of November, digitizing the 2013 DCF field data is already complete, giving the managers a head start on crop analysis and planning for the 2014 season.

    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 2013, in several cases the speed and convenience of FARMDATA’s input forms was key to getting field work done before foul weather or darkness.

    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.

    A survey of existing vegetable recordkeeping services revealed none equal to FARMDATA. AgSquared is a popular online service with over 5000 users, but its complexity is a shortcoming. FARMDATA has the advantage of being simpler and faster to use, with less tendency to freeze up during data entry, and a more straightforward recordkeeping system. SARE has supported projects for cattle records (SW04-051) but not vegetable production to our knowledge. ONE09-110 attempted to track vegetable labor but failed due to reliance on a complicated device and software. FARMDATA has proven viability thanks to its adaptability to smartphones already carried by many growers.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project has three concrete objectives:

    • Provide a working version of FARMDATA to two nearby partner farms as a feasibility study regarding its value and viability as a data collection system beyond the Dickinson College Farm. Partner farm managers will lead data collection efforts at their farms, and will contribute specific requests and commentary to improve FARMDATA throughout the 2014 growing season.

    • Work with a certification specialist from Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) to tailor the output of FARMDATA to the needs of inspectors and certified growers

    • Release improved FARMDATA software to either PCO or the general public (as an open source software package) at the end of 2014. PCO will be given first right of exclusive ownership of FARMDATA before releasing the software to the public.

    Partner farms were chosen for their proximity to Dickinson College, and for the diverse nature of their cropping systems. See “collaborating farmers” section for further details.

    • Everblossom Farm is a NOFA-NY certified, mid-sized (13 acre) CSA, market, and wholesale produce farm.
    • Spiral Path Farm is a PCO certified, large scale farm (255 acres), serving the region through large scale wholesale supply to grocery stores and a 2300 member CSA.
    • Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) is a USDA-accredited organic certifying agency that educates and certifies growers, processors and handlers of organic crops, wild crops, livestock and livestock products in Pennsylvania and nine adjoining states.

    When we approached PCO regarding their interest in the project, Director of Education and Outreach Lee Rinehart expressed strong support. Lee confirmed that many certified growers struggle with record keeping, causing costly wastes of time during annual inspections. He further expressed a clear need for a simple and fast recordkeeping system to be used by organic produce growers.

    Lee Rinehart also informed us that PCO has been moving towards developing its own online records portal for certified growers. Since FARMDATA’s development team does not have an interest in long-term ownership of the technology, we are exploring the possibility that PCO will adopt the software package as a service to their growers. If PCO declines this opportunity at the close of 2014, we will package and release FARMDATA as an open-source technology for free public downloads.

    The implementation work will be carried out by Tim Wahls and a Dickinson computer science student to be hired using College matching funds. The precise modifications to be made to FARMDATA are currently unknown, as they depend on the results of meetings with partner farmers and certification specialists from PCO. The current FARMDATA implementation consists of a mix of JavaScript and PHP scripts that interact with a MySQL database to generate HTML output, which is then sent to the user’s web browser. This combination has been effective to this point, but individual aspects may be replaced depending on new system requirements. FARMDATA currently contains a significant amount of browser and device-specific code in order to support multiple desktop and mobile operating systems and browsers. The developers plan incorporate the jQuery library systematically within FARMDATA to alleviate problems associated with cross-platform support. The developers will be in frequent contact with Matt Steiman and staff from partner farms to refine requirements as they are implemented, and to develop new requirements as needed. New versions of FARMDATA will be released to partner farms regularly (every one to two weeks), and feedback from each release will be incorporated into following releases.

    Enhancements to FARMDATA will be assessed by:

    • measuring and comparing the level of record capture by partner farms in the 2013 and 2014 growing seasons (that is, with and without the use of FARMDATA). The analysis for 2013 will be based on existing paper and any electronic records that the farms have, as well as estimates by farm managers of the amount of data not captured.
    • surveying staff at partner farms to obtain feedback regarding the usefulness, user friendliness and efficiency of record collection with FARMDATA, with particular regard for comparisons to the record collection system previously used.
    Near the end of the grant period, Matt Steiman and Tim Wahls will meet with representatives from PCO to determine whether they will adopt FARMDATA. If PCO chooses to adopt, developer activities will include:

    • modifying FARMDATA to support storing data for multiple farms on a single server. This will require creating a separate logical database for each farm, and modifying FARMDATA to connect to the appropriate database when a user logs in. This approach will increase data security in that data from different farms will not be stored in the same logical database.
    • implementing additional reporting facilities as required by PCO. This will require the creation of a separate interface that allows authorized individuals from PCO to view data from any of the logical databases.

    The developers will package FARMDATA for open source release, and make the code for FARMDATA freely available via an appropriate repository such as github or SourceForge.

    Release activities will include:
    • implementing an install script so that users who are not programmers can install FARMDATA on their own website. This script will include commands for creating the necessary database tables.
    • writing any needed installation instructions
    • uploading the package to the selected repository

    In either case, the developers will also need to implement a “Help” feature with usage instructions.

    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.