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ISSUE DATE: August 19, 1998
Computer technology takes to the field
By Ray Sotero
New technology has found its way to the strawberry fields of California, at least in the way that some workers' paychecks are determined.
Here's the old way: Farmworkers in the field hustle to fill their boxes, bags or buckets with freshly harvested produce. After delivery, they then wait in line to extend cards to a foreman for punching, an individual tally on which their pay is based. The holes are later counted for payment. The system is often slow, open to fraud and not always accurate.
Here's the new way: Farmworkers still hustle, because piece work pays those who do. Only now they merely pass by a foreman who shines an 8-ounce, flashlight-style probe toward either a barcode-bearing credit card or a coin-sized, stainless steel microprocessor affixed to the workers' hat or shirt. An audible ``beep'' tells workers their load has been counted--and they're off for another row. The software ensures against overcounting; indeed, on some farms, workers beep it for themselves because each box can only be counted once.
Cost and savings: At an outlay of between $10,000 and $13,000 for most outfits, the computerized data system is no small expense. But records show that during the past year at least 80 to 100 California farmers have invested in the system, and those interviewed estimate they're recouping their costs within a year. At least 1,500 farmers are so wired nationwide.
``At first I was skeptical because it was brand new and hadn't been proven,'' Orange County Farm Bureau President Paul Murai said during a recent demonstration of an Oregon system he purchased last year to help manage his nearly 200 acres.
``But I'm sure a believer now. These devices produce accurate reports immediately. Besides eliminating a payroll clerk and improved accuracy in they field, they pay for themselves right away.'' Welcome to the newest technology to an ancient industry.
``Hand Trak is a product designed to check hourly and piece rate pay in the field,'' Mike Wiegert, account manager for Beaverton, Ore.-based Doane Agricultural Services, said about the system he sold Murai. ``It allows farmers to track workers, which farm they're working, picking, thinning, watering, mowing, you name it. It clocks it down to the second. Stores it. At the end of the day, you can attach a modem directly to the probe and download it.''
Another feature allows the farmer to track historical harvests from a field, row, almost down to individual plants, something expected to be developed soon for vineyards.
For example, one strawberry grower, by tracking the weight of his fruit when loaded on the truck and comparing its weight when delivered, found he was losing money to evaporating moisture. ``He found out he was leaving the fruit on the property too long and it was shrinking,'' Wiegert said.
``He knew how much weight he was paying for for picking, and he knew the weight for the processor when coming in. Soon, ``He started double runs to the processor; it was cheaper to run the trucks more often.''
Doane is but one of the firms that sell the systems; another is Southern California-based Agriculture Data Technology. Interviews showed up to a half-dozen units are sold each month, testament to word-of-mouth education, and underscores the power of technology and development.
For example, two years ago, units sold for a moderate-sized farm of up to 200 acres of value-intensive crops for about $55,000.
``And they bolted onto the front of a pickup,'' Wiegert said. ``Now the average is $8,000, plus the cost of the tools'' or probes, which run about $100 apiece.
Murai bought almost a dozen so there would be a couple extras between downloading, according to Murai's bookkeeper, Kammy Murai, who also is his daughter.
``One advantage is in the field,'' Kammy Murai said. ``But the biggest advantage is labor saving. You can go from the probe and badges to printing out a check. Once the probe reads the data, the following morning we download, and a secretary produces a pick report. The computer prints it out in report form, with employee's name, number, the amount paid per unit, the type of box. It's all there in a report the farmer show the workers. ``One person can do payroll for 1,000 workers.''
In addition, there is greater protection against ``ghost'' employees, or cards that mysteriously get punched for invisible workers, a problem that sometimes plagues larger operations.
Another feature is to track pesticide applications, by type and quantity, for each field. Or, using the data, a farmer can see which fields are producing, and how much. Even packing shed operations can be tracked. If a sudden drop is noticed, a farmer can direct a crew accordingly.
``We have some strawberry growers in California who use it to see if they want to pick in the same field the next day,'' Wiegert said. ``If one field starts looking like its punking out and needs to rest a couple days, they can decide to move to another field.''
For some, like Cecil Martinez of Martinez Farms, an 88-acre strawberry operation in Ventura County, the computer took over much of the complexity. ``Trying to document all the different kinds of containers that were being filled was really confusing,'' Martinez said. ``If the card started at 100 and holes are punched backward, it means one thing. If the card started at one, it meant something else. And different containers can have different rates.''
He said he also valued how he can have documentation about who picked what, or how long it took to fill different containers, or to print out a daily labor report showing each employee's production, piece rate, containers and hours worked.
Several farmers acknowledged that many employees expressed initial reluctance to the system. Some kept track of boxes on their own, just in case. Because farmworker crews sometimes comprise a wide cross-section of cultures, certain fears and superstitions had to be overcome. But that never lasts long once workers compare what the computer does side by side to what they keep track of on their own, farmers said.
``Let's say we're weeding a field,'' Murai said. ``The foreman has a job card, a clipboard with all these different job tasks. He'll punch in strawberries at, say, `Field 128. Weeding,' and clock in the time. Let's say the crew then goes to artichokes. He'll clock in `Artichokes. Field 140.' '' By the end of the day, the probes can tell who worked where, for how long, any yield, if applicable, all at the speed of light.
Said one of Murai's neighbors, Mike Etchandy, who farms about 50 acres of strawberries: ``I'm getting one next year.''
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