Old MacDonald had a fax, ee-ai-ee-ai-oh
Gruppo Feruzzi, the largest farming conglomerate in the world, took over this family-run 2,500-acre farm in late 1986 and installed me as estate manager. We decided that with 1.2 million acres farmed worldwide, there had to be some kind of common, group-wide recording system. We'd inherited a traditional paper-based one system and the detail we required was not available and nothing was retrievable.
Computer use in agriculture was still in its infancy – there are still people out there using horses – but we decided we needed them. We started with a 20 MB Amstrad running Farmplan for financial control and monthly budgeting and accounting, plus CMS Optimix which functions as a field recording system recording every application to every field, as well as all other costs, plus payroll etc. The farm doesn't actually handle any money at all. We also use a program called Prolion coupled with weather data to predict crop disease. The farm has two weather stations linked to an IBM AT which logs conditions every ten seconds. We can't predict the weather, but having a historical record is usefuL We had a spraying failure recently and when I took the rep to task about it he gave me the old excuse that it must have rained after applying. I could check in about five seconds, and he was wrong.
Technology increases predictability. I can say okay, we've spent this much on field and we expect that much back, so we won't bother doing anything else to it. We can record weed levels, soil PH, phosphate levels etc. as well as harvest details and put them all in a database.
Even so, we've really only scratched the surface. Much of what we're doing on computer lends itself to the next step. For example, our weigh-bridge produces a little paper ticket which we carry across the yard and input manually. How much should we spend just to eliminate this piece of paper? There is an electronic farming network, but only about 20 per cent of farms in the UK have a computer, let alone a modem. Without a critical mass of users it's not much use. Similarly, we send diskettes to Feruzzi headquarters. I don't know how useful a worldwide network would be as we use different languages throughout the group.
We could link up to the commodities market on Prestel (videotext), but we don't as Feruzzi has their own trading office. There are other areas waiting to be computerised – something like a Psion Organiser in each tractor cab would be useful, but again, is it worth the investment at the moment? It will come.
Our fax machine is vital. Talking to someone on the other side of the world is so much easier if they have a piece of paper in front of them. All in all, new media have made our decision making proces easier. I get a gut reaction, and sooner or later I get the figures out to back it up! On the downside, when the auditors come, they are able to audit us down to the last penny – and do. Before, as long as the numbers added up, Ihat was good enough.