Frustration Leads a Farmer and a Programmer to Team Up on Technology

Frustration Leads a Farmer and a Programmer to Team Up on Technology
From foodtank.com, by Emily Seifert

Two faculty members of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania have created a new streamlined system to manage the university’s farm. Dickinson College Farm is a 10-acre certified organic produce farm and educational program for the university.  The farm boasts a 100-member CSA, a farmer’s market, and operates a wholesale account through the college dining hall. Students, in turn, gain hands-on experience in agriculture and business operations and have the opportunity to work side-by-side with university faculty on innovative projects.

The web-enabled database, called FARMDATA, was created with the collaboration of Matt Steiman, Production Manager at the farm, and Tim Wahls, Associate Professor of Computer Science. The idea for the database came from Steiman’s frustrations with record-keeping inefficiencies and complicated digitizing of information. By bringing together Steiman’s farming knowledge and Wahls’s programming abilities, as well as some assistance from Dickinson College students, they’ve created a simple and efficient solution for farmers all over the world.

FARMDATA allows farmers to capture, record, and analyze data from any device with an Internet connection. The decision to create the program in a web-based format instead of an app was an important one; this distinction allows both farmers in the fields and those managing from the office the opportunity to enter, track, and report data simultaneously.  The system consists mainly of smart forms, including drop downs to reduce typing and errors and is even talk-to-text compatible, completely eliminating the need for farmers to type. For Steiman, the most critical aspect of the FARMDATA program is efficiency: “We have a crew out there every day of the week. We’re very interested in speed and efficiency…everything needs to be fast and not too painful, not too time consuming.”

FARMDATA records everything from plantings, harvests, seed orders, irrigation, and inventory. Analytic reports can be run at any time and can generate graphs for immediate review. For the Dickinson College farm, this is especially useful because it saves one third of the time for their organic inspector.

 Funding for the program was provided by the USDA’s Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NE-SARE) and its design was created in just two and a half months by three Dickinson College students. Asir Saeed, Yutong “Mia” Shang, and Edwin Padilla managed the design with the supervision of Wahls. According to Padilla, “Normally something like this would take a year, so it was intense…the learning curve was exponential at first, because we had very little experience with any of these languages, so we just had to adapt and experiment.”

 FARMDATA is a free, open source project.  Farmers all over the world can access the database here and download the program for their own use. 

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