Specialty Crop Trade Shows Go Virtual: Now We’re Talking About the Digital Age of Farming!

In the last couple of weeks, I have received news about many annual agriculture and specialty crop industry conventions, conferences, and trade shows going virtual (the Lynden Ag Show, the NW Hort Expo, and the Great Lakes Expo to name a few). As an exhibitor, I do not know exactly what to expect and I am sure that many attendees are wondering what these virtual events will look like, too.

How do I prepare for a virtual trade show? How do I reconnect with current customers and meet new growers in the same way? How can farmers learn and evaluate technology that becomes more tangible on a show floor? Will communication on a digital platform give our company enough credibility that may be more easily established in face-to-face conversations? For a new adopter of technology (someone who might be more hesitant to jump on the bandwagon), will it be enough to only meet virtually? Will these people even "attend" virtual events?

I did a little research on what people are saying about virtual conferences and trade shows. One positive, there is a lower cost to entry. The traveling can be a fun part of attending a show—as an attendee and exhibitor. It is a great excuse to get out of town for a change in scenery, try new restaurants (often on the company’s dime), and meet up with industry colleagues and friends. However, these benefits do come at a cost. Without these travel expenses, more exhibitors and more attendees can potentially benefit from the virtual event.

Another positive, flexibility. Often, you can view content on your own time when it is more convenient for you. No need to block two or three full days out of your busy life to spend dawn until dusk at the convention center. Access industry specialists, exhibitors, and the content you are looking for while at home (for many of us right now) or in the office.

I came across a video emphasizing the importance as a virtual exhibitor to, “think out of the booth.” Do not expect an in-person trade show or exhibit hall because you will be disappointed, or have a mindset that prevents you from taking advantage of the opportunities a virtual show offers. Shifting expectations can be a challenge. Many of these Ag shows have taken place for decades. However, I would argue that 2nd Sight, and many other Ag tech companies, are trying to do just that—shift the mindset of the specialty crop industry in terms of new technology applications and adoption. As an exhibitor, our goal is to “think out of the booth” and use technology and virtual platforms to better justify the case for technology in the farm environment.

I think the specialty crop industry should get on-board with virtual. Farming has entered the digital age. It is time to use online platforms to more easily demo, well, online software and platforms that will help farmers better manage their fruit, vegetable, nursery, or greenhouse operations. This year, the physical 2nd Sight booth will be less of a booth and more like a solution center where product demos and video content can more easily be shared, viewed, and discussed.

Why do you attend conventions and conferences? Do you enjoy the travel, the camaraderie seminars, and industry updates? Or do you see these events as an opportunity to make new connections, reconnect with current suppliers and customers, and learn about new products? Or, do you go to stock your desk with vendor pens and other swag (send me your address and I will send you some pens)? 2020 has been a year of challenges, and a year that has pushed our resiliency, adaptability, and creativity. The only constant is change, let’s embrace it.

Implementation of StockTrak: Produce Packinghouse Traceability

Cherries, a sign of summertime in the Pacific Northwest. Another cherry season begins, and for many growers, the whirlwind only lasts a few weeks. Like other crops, cherry harvest continues to move north as the season progresses. Up in Kelowna BC, a later July start can carry the cherry harvest into September, if growers are lucky.

In 2020, we have worked with a handful of cherry growers in British Columbia who benefited from the Traceability Funding Program. The program reimbursed growers and packers for equipment and software purchases that improve food safety and tracing at their farms. The funding helped several growers implement the FairPick weighing system to better track who picked what and where out in the field. The FairPick also requires less contact which is important in times of social distancing because it eliminates passing punch cards back and forth between pickers and checkers. I applaud the Canadian government. There has been no better time amid the COVID-19 health crisis to help support farmers to adopt better food safety practices and traceability systems.

However, traceability in the packinghouse is just as important. Maintaining a link from received bins to finished products shipped provides very important information when quality or health issues arise. Implementing an electronic produce tracking system in the processing facility at Valley Orchards is a new project that is taking shape and adding another layer of “agtech” to an already very automated processing line.

High-tech Farming

A recent visit to the packinghouse at Valley Orchards was a reminder that many growers have implemented impressive technology to help decrease labor costs and improve the quality of their produce. The building is a maze of conveyors, sorters, electronics, and optics that streamline the processing of their own cherries and cherries from other Okanagan Valley farms. Out of context, the operator’s station could be mistaken for a complicated security system. Instead of monitoring people in the facility, the cameras and computers monitor fruit as it moves through each stage, from clipping bunches, to hydrocooling, to sorting by “row” size, and detecting defects that kick the cherries off the line. This newer application of conveyors and sorting equipment was not completely novel, but the cameras, computers, and software replacing human eyes and hands makes this packing line beneficial to Valley Orchards. The challenges for the engineers who were tasked to design such a processing line included maintaining a balance between simplicity, features, and reliability.

The StockTrak system presents similar challenges. Implementing a new system, even if using barcodes, scanners, and label printers which have all been around for decades, takes careful planning, time, and several iterations. As the development of the software continues, we strive for a balance between the system’s simplicity with the granularity of data, flexibility to adapt to other processes while keeping the project scope in mind, and implementation of error-checking while maintaining an easy-to-use interface.

I am excited to see the StockTrak system implemented and how it will evolve to help other produce growers and packers improve crop traceability and be a powerful inventory management tool.

Piecework and Integration with Payroll Software

Piecework is something that sets the agricultural industry apart from others. There are clear advantages of paying by the piece in an industry where certain jobs are very time sensitive and labor is in short supply. If employees are more efficient and productive, they will be compensated more for their hard work and skill. Seems simple, right?

Well, there are always two sides to every coin. First, tracking pieces per employee, per job, and per rate can complicate the payroll process (and cause a big headache) if trying to do this by hand. The second issue can be finding a suitable payroll system that accommodates piecework pay. Acquiring the data to pay by piece can be tricky, but that is why we have developed hardware and software solutions to make it easier to pay by weight, by piece, or by container. Using RFID employee badges and intuitive software can ease the headache of all the paperwork and calculations. Now that total time, total pieces, and total piece wages per employee are calculated and ready to go with a few button clicks, the next step to further automate and save time is to directly import this data into payroll.

Another customer asked me last week if 2nd Sight had any recommendations for payroll software packages that integrate well with our labor tracking software. Over the last five years, we have worked with growers that use a variety of payroll software, and some have been easier to work with than others. Here are my thoughts about a handful of payroll software options that we see specialty crop growers using.

Everyone has heard of QuickBooks. I can attest to the simplicity of the software and the power of the reports. However, QuickBooks can be difficult to use for manufacturing or agricultural companies. One reason is the inability to import CSV or Excel-type files into the payroll module. The only file type accepted is unique to QuickBooks and does not allow for importing pieces. If you use QuickBooks, there will always be that final step of plugging in total hours and an hourly rate (calculated based on the piecework) which will take extra time and can be error prone. With Sage accounting software there is a similar issue. You can import a CSV, but you cannot import pieces and piece rates. On the support side, there are many resources available online for QuickBooks and Sage, but talking to someone who can make something happen will take time, patience, and persistence.

In terms of developing specific imports that generate the required data in the proper fields, we have had better luck with Advanced Grower Solutions’ GrowPoint, AgStar, Datatech, and Mobile Farmware. These software packages accept .csv or .txt file imports and provide the specifications and customer support needed to build and test imports of 2nd Sight data. Famous and Paylocity also offer resources to build an import to streamline the payroll process.

Implementing 2nd Sight electronic labor tracking is a step in the right direction to keep more accurate records and better manage piecework pay. The next step is creating that seamless link between data acquisition and payroll. Although some custom software and setup is involved, that first payroll that takes you just a few minutes instead of hours makes it all worth it: upload data, review, generate, download, import, and print checks. Payroll complete.