Crop Scheduling

November 6, 2003 - 13:11

How growers operate with software that is and is not currently available.

Invest now to save later -- the industry's market message is
clear. It is safe to say that our industry is moving forward and taking
advantage of new technologies. More than ever there is demand for new equipment
and programs that can push a business forward and make it more efficient. The
Internet and new software programs are implemented into the way we do business
and may be what makes one operation more successful than another. Can the same
be said about crop scheduling?

Recently, GPN asked growers how they approach their crop
scheduling needs and looked into some of the solutions currently available on
the market.

Spreadsheets Scheduling

Different operations choose different scheduling methods.
For Joe Boarini, owner of Grande Greenhouse Inc., Indianapolis, Ind.,
spreadsheets have proven to be a relatively simple but effective method for
crop scheduling. "I use spreadsheets that I have built myself,"
Boarini said. "The main benefit is that all your information is organized,
it is convenient and much simpler than using the old-fashioned piece of paper
and calculator method." Spreadsheets allow growers to clearly visualize
space usage and calculate how much it costs to grow a particular crop.
According to Boarini, spreadsheets are very useful for growers running a
small-to medium-size greenhouse and can be put together with little effort.

Software Scheduling

On the other hand, Justin Marotta, president and co-owner of
Possum Run Greenhouses Inc., Belleville, Ohio, said his operation uses
production software (Arc Software) for vegetative scheduling. "In the very
beginning, pen and paper seemed great. Today the problem is that there are so
many different varieties and plants. Some of these new items require different
starting times versus different finish times, so the software makes it easier
and saves a lot of time," Marotta explained. He also thinks the benefit of
using software instead of spreadsheets is the continuity and consistency that
exists within a software program. "It forces you to be consistent. It
becomes a disciplined part of your production." In addition, the software
terminals allow for greater accessibility. "You can get a printout of a
worksheet and give that sheet to a specific grower or production staff so they
have access to the information they need to stay on top," Marotta said.

Robert Milks, production manager of Van Wingerden
International, Fletcher, N.C., said that Van Wingerden uses two main operation
software programs, one that helps plan greenhouse space utilization and another
one for coordinating production and sales functions. "We use Starcom,
which keeps track of crop schedules, such as sowing and transplanting dates and
quantities, sales forecasts and so on," Milks explained. "For space
planning we use Gart Plan, used by various other greenhouse operations in the
United States, who also has a Web version available on subscription
basis." Milks said both software programs handle space and production
aspects, but Van Wingerden uses the portions of each that they felt were most
fully developed.

Milks explained that the main benefits of using
space-planning software are having the information to maximize production and
fulfill orders correctly, while reducing losses due to over-estimation of
capacity. He feels that greenhouse space is the most limiting factor to the
number of plants produced, and programs such as Gart Plant, can help maximize
production.

Because Van Wingerden is a weekly floral pot producer as
well as a bedding plant poinsettia promotional crop grower, weekly scheduling
is very demanding, as they must stay full all the time. "Ten years ago, we
could have said we are growing a standard quantity of flats and baskets, and we
knew what fit almost intuitively. Now we are growing numerous different
specialty programs with new genetics, so we can't plan space effectively
without a computer," Milks Á said. "Of course, we have to have
good data; if we don't continually record ready dates, a computer won't help
that much."

Milks said that although both of the programs they use are
not custom designed to every user, they have a great deal of flexibility, and
both address issues of crop timing variance due to the short-term weather,
seasonal changes and problems such as crops with extended bloom windows.
"They are far more advanced than a spreadsheet and certainly less costly
than hiring a programmer and starting at ground zero," Milks explained.

Drawbacks

Growers are often skeptical because the horticulture
industry is complex and varied, and it is hard to design software for scheduling
that fits everyone's needs. Marotta thinks that some of the drawbacks with
software use are in part because growers feel that they have different needs
than what software programmers think they do. "I think it is a learning
curve for all of us, because programmers don't always understand production,
and production doesn't understand what it entitles to put a program
together," he said.

Software Comeback

"There is a high number of companies that have dropped
the spreadsheet and gone to a production planning system," said Richard
Nuss, CEO of Starcom, Buffalo, Wash. Starcom offers growers a production
planning system that has been on the market for about eight years. "The
production planning system allows growers to look at a ready date and when the
products need to be shipped," Nuss explained. "Depending on the type
of plant, the program goes back to a library of processes that the grower has
set up and creates a schedule from the first labor task to materials and to
actions that need to be performed so the crop is completed on time."

The production planning system is a database that keeps all
historical information, and it works as a program as opposed to spreadsheet.
Growers can record all of the information about what is required to produce a
certain item in the Plant Library. The library can accommodate multiple seasons
and allows growers to preset changes to grow times based on plant weeks. It can
estimate spoilage, and the program can reduce the expected yield available to
the salespeople or automatically increase planting quantities to allow for the
estimated spoilage and ensure the grower's goal. In addition, growers can
record labor materials used to produce and item and the program will
automatically calculate resource requirements. Changes to the library
information automatically adjust future forecasts.

According to Nuss, spreadsheets require a lot of hand typing
of information and can be very time consuming. "The program is already
orientated to different days, plans and growing seasons. It makes the process
easier by using a lot of historical information, year after year, with a very
few changes," Nuss said. "It is much more automatic than a
spreadsheet."

What Works for You

Overall, most growers approach scheduling based on what
works best for their operation. However, operation size is no longer the main
factor in deciding whether spreadsheets or a software program is right for you.

"I think all types of growers can benefit from these
programs," Milks said. "There are simpler, less expensive programs
for smaller growers and more complex and expensive for larger ones -- they can
be tailored to anyone's needs."

About The Author

Neda Simeonova is associate editor for GPN. She can be reach by phone at (847) 391-1013 or E-mail at nsimeonova@sgcmail.com.

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