Software Tools for Small Farms, By Chris Bodnar
This article has been expanded from the original which was published in COABC’s BC Organic Grower, Volume 16, Number 3, Summer, 2013
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Many organic farms have a special binder. The binder holds field records, crop plans, a multitude of to-do lists and miscellaneous notes. The binder is sacred; should it ever go missing, the following year’s organic inspection would be a nightmare. The farm’s operations depend on a bundle of papers that, with one drop in a mud puddle, could cause a lot of unnecessary stress.
Whether your record keeping involves such a binder, spreadsheets or any other systems you’ve developed over the years, you are likely aware of the value of the information you have accumulated over the years. Moving your record keeping to a specialized program can help to make this information more useful and more organized
In this article, I review a number of record keeping and CSA management software tools that I have tested over the past year. Our farm business has successfully transitioned to electronic record keeping and CSA management programs that, ultimately, have made our work easier and more efficient.
DIGITAL RECORD KEEPING
It would stand to reason that a record keeping program designed by organic farmers to meet the expectations of organic certification programs would best meet the needs of organic farmers. This is certainly the case with software tools like COG-Pro.
COG-Pro is designed to keep track of records from the point of developing your seed order right through to recording harvest yields and sales. If used to its fullest extent, growers can track seeds through the entire growing process using lot numbers from seed packages, generate seed records (e.g. demonstrate your search and use of organic seed), produce fields plans, seeding records, fertility records and harvest records.
In addition to crops, COG-Pro also offers modules for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) record keeping as well as for livestock records. A feature of the software allows growers to provide a read-only password to Verification Officers and Certification Bodies to review records prior to site visits.
COG-Pro is cloud-based. This means data is stored on remote servers so you can access your account from any computer with an internet connection and you don’t have to worry about backing up files. More than one person can access your account at the same time and anyone with the account password can enter information to records.
COG-Pro features an intuitive and simple interface design. When using the program on a desktop computer, the layout looks like a notebook with tabs. This makes the software easy to understand and use. COG-Pro can be used on all mobile devices as well as desktop computers. The company’s support service is exceptional.
Our farm business began using COG-Pro this past season. We highly recommend the software.
COG-Pro costs $79/year for its crop module, $129 for the crop and GAP modules or the crop and livestock modules or $159 for the crop, GAP and livestock modules. https://cog-pro.com
AgSquared has received a fair bit of publicity this past year. Johnny’s sponsors a free 30-day trial of the software for growers. The product attempts to bring together a range of functions from farm mapping and crop planning to record keeping and harvest records.
In AgSquared, growers are able to set up a work plan for the season. Tasks can be assigned to specific dates or time periods. Work plans can then be generated and printed for specific days, weeks or months. Once completed, planned tasks can be checked off and then become records of tasks completed.
The program is cloud-based and the interface is flash-based. As a result, the program only works on desktop and laptop computers, not phones or most tablets. Although a mobile app is in the works, it is not yet ready.
AgSquared offers various webinars to help learn about the program’s features. It also provides unlimited e-mail support.
The major drawback of AgSquared is its complexity. The program’s creators have big plans, but some of what the software is designed to manage seems overly complex, if not unrealistic. The flash-based interface ran too slowly on over our internet connection. Very little about the program felt intuitive.
AgSquared costs $99/year for their basic version, which provides farm mapping, record keeping and task management. A second-tier option for $299/year offers labour tracking, production tracking and support. A third-tier option for $799/year provides outsourced data entry, a dedicated account rep and custom data exports. http://www.agsquared.com
Seed to Harvest
Seed to Harvest is a handy iPhone and iPod app that is both affordable and convenient to use.
Cost is a major advantage of Seed to Harvest. A basic version is available for free. To generate reports you need the paid version, available on iTunes for $9.99. This is a one-time cost (no annual subscription).
A unique characteristic of Seed to Harvest is that your data is stored on your electronic device. You can enter and save data in the field without having an internet connection. Data can be backed up later when connected to the internet.
Seed to Harvest also presents a few drawbacks. Because information is stored on your device, if your device is ever lost or broken and you haven’t backed up your data, you risk losing it. As well, records are unique to each device; if there’s more than one person on your farm doing record keeping, your notes won’t sync. This is one reason we don’t use this program on our farm. Seed to Harvest is purely a record-keeping tool – it doesn’t have functions for planning or scheduling tasks. Finally, when doing larger batches of entries, it’s nice to use a keyboard – thumb typing on a phone gets a bit tedious.
POINT OF SALE PAYMENT PROCESSING
Do you ever have to decline sales at the farmers market because people don’t have enough cash? Want to take deposits for larger advance orders? Square allows you to accept credit cards using your smart phone. Low transaction fees, a free card reader and no need for a merchant account make this an economic way to accept sales you might otherwise lose. Plus, you can track all sales for the day (no cost for using the app to track cash sales), include inventory and you can even sync your Square account to Quickbooks, providing easier integration with your bookkeeping tasks. End result: capture non-cash sales while building data about the number of daily sales, average size of sales and products sold, all to help you better understand your customers’ choices. Software tools like Square typically charge you a percentage of the value of the transaction – Square charges 2.75%. There are no additional account or processing fees and no minimum amounts. Cash is deposited into your bank account the next business day. https://squareup.com
Moneris Payd Pro
A new product from Canadian payment processing company Moneris allows small businesses to accept debit cards as well as credit cards via their mobile phone. Payd Pro provides a pin pad that syncs to your phone or tablet via bluetooth, allowing customers to enter their PIN without compromising security. Credit Card transactions are charged a 2.75% fee while debit transactions are included as part of the overall $19.95/month plan fee. https://www.getpayd.com
The major advantage to accepting more plastic payment at farmers markets is that it reduces the risk of losing money through theft or carelessness. Of course, you do need to make sure your phone or tablet isn’t stolen!
CSA MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE
Four years ago I was at a breaking point with our farm’s CSA program. In order to provide adequate service to members, I was spending far too many hours on e-mail and the phone while navigating overly-complex spreadsheets. Despite best efforts, mistakes were made and parts of the program that relied on volunteers were hit-and-miss.
Moving to an online program allowed us to streamline our sign-up procedure, better communicate with members, manage harvest lists, sales records and packing lists, produce weekly delivery route sheets and even print our box labels from the software. By using an online store option available, members have been able to purchase additional items in their boxes. In a recent delivery, extra store orders increased the value of that week’s CSA deliveries by 50 percent! Our members report an increased satisfaction with their experience and our lives are much easier.
The programs noted below can be used by farmers for CSA management as well as by buying clubs to manage orders and deliveries.
After investigating a number of options we chose to use the Farmigo program for our CSA.
In the Farmigo system, the grower sets up pick-up locations, delivery routes and share options. Subscribers can then sign-up and manage their accounts online. Farms can choose to accept payments through Paypal, a merchant account, electronic cheque and or personal cheque.
During the delivery season, farmers can design their box contents, generate harvest and packing lists, print box labels and delivery routes and generate personalized e-mails to subscribers. A mobile app allows the farmer to manage subscriptions on the go, including sending e-mail confirmations to customers when deliveries are made.
Farmigo provides an exceptional user interface and support. The program is intuitive both for the farmers as well as for the customer. The software is easy to use and the interface is attractive. After signing up with Farmigo, farms are paired with a support person who provides weekly training sessions and holds the farm to a work plan to ensure the CSA is ready to accept sign-ups by the target date identified by the farm.
Farmigo charges 2 percent of the value of deliveries with a $150 monthly minimum. You only pay for months when you have a delivery. With this fee structure, Farmigo is best suited to CSA programs valued at least $7,500/month. http://www.farmigo.com/
Small Farm Central
Another option for CSA management is Small Farm Central. In addition to CSA management, Small Farm Central also offers web site design services for farms that need a new or upgraded web presence. Plus, Small Farm Central is run by people dedicated to farmers and they truly understand and work to support the CSA sector.
Small Farm Central offers many of the same services as Farmigo, but might be more attractive to smaller farms for their pricing options. Fees are based on the number of members (packages start at $30/month for 50 members or less) and there is no extra charge for additional items purchased by members through the farm’s online CSA store. The monthly fee, however, is charged whether the CSA program is delivering in a given month or not.
The Small Farm Central software is ideal for farms where cost is the determining factor. http://www.smallfarmcentral.com/
Arriving in early 2015, Harvest Hand is a Canadian option for CSA management. Developed for a farm in Nova Scotia, the software has been tested by a number of different CSA farms in recent years and is now being offered to all CSA farms.
Harvest Hand integrates CSA management software with a template for the farm’s web page. E-mails to members are done through the software and logged on the farm’s blog (also on the website). This is an attractive option for farms who need a simple web site and e-mail management option in addition to their CSA software. Web site templates offered thus far are basic. Farms with developed web pages can seamlessly integrate the Harvest Hand platform into their existing site. I expect to see more as the folks behind the product develop their software further and respond to farms’ needs.
Harvest Hand charges a flat fee of $10 for each member in your CSA (the first 10 members are free). You are charged this fee up front when members sign up. While it appears attractive, farms should do the math to compare their costs with each software program before making a decision.
Harvest Hand offers a complete package to farms who would like to keep their money in Canada and need an integrated web site, CSA management and blog capacity. Plus, the people behind the product are down-to-earth and energized to roll out their product to more farmers. http://www.harvesthand.com/
Want it all in one place?
Want to track everything in one place? Local Orbit integrates online ordering for customers, inventory tracking, financial management/bookkeeping, marketing and harvest logistics in one program. A powerful program, but it comes at a price; basic subscriptions start at $399/year and advanced subscriptions covering all payment fees can run up to $999/year plus 7% of costs. This is an advanced product that farmers investigating producer co-ops or food hubs should check out.
Regardless of what program you choose for your record keeping and/or business management, your data will only be as good as the database that stores your information. To set up your account to function the way you want it to work will require a number of hours of work doing data entry and organizing your farm’s information. Start planning early for a transition next season to ensure you have enough time in the off-season to prepare.
Finally, make sure to investigate and ensure the product you choose meets your needs. Take time to talk with representatives from the companies before subscribing. Take advantage of free trials to play around with the product before committing. Once you choose a product you will be building a database of historical information about your operations. It will be difficult to change products in the future – not to mention the time it takes to set up another new system in the first place!