FARMDATA: An internet-based production record system for vegetable farm improvement
FARMDATA is an internet-based database system for user friendly inputting and reporting of crop production records, developed at Dickinson College. After one year of successful field testing at the Dickinson College Farm, and upon receiving significant interest in the project from other growers in the region, the project team sought SARE funding to improve FARMDATA and make it available to the public.
Major objectives (in quotes, from our proposal) and progress to date are summarized as:
- “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.” The project team provided customized copies of FARMDATA to Everblossom Farm and Spiral Path Farm, and supported them both with software and training help throughout the 2014 growing season. Neither farm made as much use of the system as we had hoped, but both passed through the setup phase and are committed to using FARMDATA again in 2015. Significant improvements were made to FARMDATA based on partner farmer experiences and feedback, and lessons regarding conditions for farmer success were gleaned.
- “Work with a certification specialist from Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) to tailor the output of FARMDATA to the needs of inspectors and certified growers.” Lee Rinehart (education & outreach director at PCO) requested several substantial alterations to FARMDATA which were implemented for the benefit of all future users.
- “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.” Major improvements were made to FARMDATA in 2014, including those that emerged through work with project partners, and others developed through further field testing at the Dickinson College Farm – the revised FARMDATA package is leaps and bounds ahead of the version that was approved for SARE support last year. As a condition of funding with public money, NESARE required that FARMDATA be released open source to the public. FARMDATA is now available for free public downloads via http://sourceforge.net/projects/farmdata/ As of 12/29/31 the package has been downloaded 64 times and counting. The sourceforge project page includes a comprehensive users guide and setup instructions.
The outreach phase of our project began in December of 2014 with a presentation at an advanced organic farmers’ seminar. Arrangements are in place for further outreach in January of 2015 and beyond.
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. We have kept in touch throughout the year and will continue to work with PCO for outreach to constituent farmers in 2015. At the Dickinson College Farm’s 2014 organic inspection, 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.
After initial team meetings with partner farmers Elaine Lemmon (Everblossom Farm) and Will Brownback (Spiral Path Farm), Tim Wahls set up customized FARMDATA databases for each grower. Matt Steiman met with each grower several times throughout the 2014 season to assist with farm staff training and to assist them with pushing through initial data entry hurdles. Matt and Tim 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.
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, to avoid pressuring them too hard out of concern that they would drop out completely. Apparently this was successful as both have indicated their intent to continue using FARMDATA in 2015:
Will Brownback writes: “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 or 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.”
Elaine Lemmon writes: “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.”
We have yet to conduct more formal surveys of each farm’s data collection and experiences as outlined in the project proposal. Matt Steiman has arranged to meet with each grower in January of 2015 to train new staff and discuss plans for 2015. Spiral Path Farm has revived technical discussions with Tim Wahls via email and has made further contributions to project content development as recently as December 2014.
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 early in the season.
The Dickinson College Farm now has 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. New lessons about our production system and decisions for management changes were gleaned from our data set in the fall of 2014.
In January of 2015 Matt Steiman will meet with managers at Pittsburgh-based Small Farm Central, a widely used commercial web services provider geared towards direct market produce farms. Everblossom Farm runs their CSA business website through smallfarmcentral.com and reported some overlap in harvest data collection between that site and FARMDATA. The FARMDATA project will remain available for free public downloads to the open source community regardless of the outcome of our January meeting. However, the project team feels that long term 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 continue to upgrade the system as farmers’ needs evolve. At the time of this report, emails have been traded and interest expressed, we are hopeful that the January meeting will bear fruit.
IMPROVEMENTS AND UPGRADES TO FARMDATA:
Tim Wahls and his student programming team made considerable 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:
- 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 full suite of pages for seed inventory and ordering (requested by PCO). The inventory tracks organic vs. conventional seed usage, and is automatically updated when direct seeding and flats seeding records are entered. Seed codes are traceable from the inventory through field plantings for quick verification of compliance with organic standards.
- 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.
- time saving and aesthetic upgrades to harvest, cover cropping, tillage, and spray pages.
- automated graphing displays for harvest and sales records
- 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.
- full edit and delete capabilities so that administrative users can correct any data entry errors.
- 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 64 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/
- an attractive and memorable logo for FARMDATA to be used on the site and in outreach materials.
All activity listed occurred in 2014
- January: (prior to SARE award, activity not charged to grant): Steiman and Wahls (hereafter “project team”) 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: Steiman met with Elaine Lemmon and apprentices at Everblossom Farm for staff training and brainstorming
- June 4: Steiman 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 (Steiman). “Backdater” rapid data entry interface development occurred in the week that followed (Team).
- July 24-30: Development of irrigation dashboard and reports, compost accumulation & maintenance pages (project team).
- October 31: Steiman trained Megan Rulli (Piney Mountain Farm) – Wahls set up new farm page.
- November 4: Logo developed. Wahls posted FARMDATA project to Sourceforge. Downloads began.
- November – December: Development and testing of seed order, inventory and reports. Wahls added cover crops to seed inventory and developed users’ manuals and download instructions. Wahls developed configuration page and rapid startup interface for new farmer pages.
- December 11: Steiman presented FARMDATA at Penn State Extension’s Advances Organic Farmers seminar, Easton PA.
- Pending activities for Jan-Feb 2015: Collect end of project surveys & compare pre& post project data collection at partner farms. Present at Mid Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers convention (Hershey PA, Jan 29, 2015). Write article for PCO’s Organic Matters newsletter. Final report.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
IMPACTS AND CONTRIBUTIONS / OUTCOMES
- Customized working copies of FARMDATA internet database system provided to three farms (Everblossom, Spiral Path, and Piney Mountain). EBF and SPF received extensive one on one contact and support. All three farms will continue with FARMDATA in 2015
- FARMDATA content & interface modified significantly to reflect the needs of organic certifiers and two partner farms.
- Substantially improved (compared with 2013 version) FARMDATA system released to the public for free open source downloads. Project is downloaded regularly worldwide. 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.
- FARMDATA presented to about 30 career growers at Penn State Extension advanced organic farmers’ seminar. Response to the project is favorable.
- Pending outcomes:
- Presentation of FARMDATA in “new equipment” section of Mid Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ conference
- Articles and electronic media releases
- Possible connection of FARMDATA with a commercial produce farm web services provider