A beep for every bucket of fruit.

It’s a sound becoming increasingly commonplace in orchards across the country as pickers scan a bar coded badge or magnetic button to keep track of piece-rate work, allowing managers to download payroll data at the end of the day with no paper required.

A smartphone-based system offers all the data on harvest work a grower could want in real time, said Paul Geisterfer of Agricultural Data Systems. This example shows the interface for the company’s new app. <b>(Good Fruit Grower photo illustration)</b>

A smartphone-based system offers all the data on harvest work a grower could want in real time, said Paul Geisterfer of Agricultural Data Systems. This example shows the interface for the company’s new app. (Good Fruit Grower photo illustration)

But the introduction by data tracking companies of smartphone or tablet apps to replace scanners gives growers the opportunity to manage that data in real time and see, thanks to GPS tracking, where each crew or worker is picking. Some growers are eager to upgrade to such systems, while many others prefer to keep it simple.

Produce isn’t like other industries where the latest technology upgrades and big data innovations are always welcome, said Minor Bolanos, product development director for FreshQC, a traceability and worker tracking company based in Florida.

“As I go around the country, the concern I always hear from the grower is that we need something simple,” he said. “The technology has offered us more capabilities for offering information at a faster pace, but (many customers) are choosing the simplicity of the process over the time frame.”

Training workers with high turnover, rugged orchard conditions that require long battery life and water resistance, and reluctance to take a chance on something new all push growers toward keeping data tracking systems simple with bar code or magnetic button scanners.

But for growers with complex operations who need real time data to coordinate logistics — such as ensuring enough trucks are scheduled for the morning’s harvest volume — or have many crews working at different pay rates at different times, smarter systems now offer more data and more control.

“People nowadays really want to see what’s going on right now,” said Paul Geisterfer of California-based Agricultural Data Systems, showing off the capabilities of the company’s new app-based technology. A smartphone scans workers’ bar code cards to track piece rate work and a tap of the screen can clock a whole crew out for lunch or onto a different pay rate for a safety meeting. “Everything we have in this system is because some grower asked us to do it.”

ADS has been developing piece-rate tracking tools for decades, but apps created opportunities for new companies, such as Wenatchee-based FieldClock, to create specialized software aimed at the specific needs of tree fruit growers.

Unlike older systems, smartphone apps can be customized so different workers in different roles get access to only the tools they need in the language they need, so it’s efficient and easy to use.

The lure of real-time harvest data appeals to Denny Hayden, a cherry grower in Pasco, Washington, who uses ADS’s system with bar code scanners that have to be downloaded later, but he’s also concerned if smartphones are rugged enough for orchard work.

Hayden said he plans to test out the new app this season but added that it needs to be really simple for his workers to use before he’ll be willing to make the switch.

Taking advantage of a smartphone’s GPS to record location data for all the workers using the system appeals to David Bittner, whose family farms apples and stone fruit in Appleton, New York.

“When I download the data, I can compare production by block or variety or day or crew,” said Bittner, who uses an ADS system with magnetic buttons for tracking piece-rate work. “I would definitely love to upgrade for GPS, to see where the high and low production spots are and figure out why it is that way” by matching harvest data with data on fertilizer, irrigation and soils.

But he’s not planning an upgrade yet. The touch button system works great for allowing each apple picker to get paid for their own piece rate, rather than paying the crew by the bin, Bittner said, and it makes payroll easy. But for stone fruit that requires more careful harvest, and all the other work on the farm, they pay hourly, Bittner said, and don’t use the data tracking.

The key to success with a data system: work with a company that can tailor its product to your operation’s needs, Bolanos and Geisterfer said.

Keeping track of payroll in states such as California and Washington has gotten a lot more complicated in recent years, with new regulations requiring piece-rate workers to be paid for nonproductive time separately.

A smartphone app can also act as a time clock for each individual worker or for a whole crew, tracking time spent in safety meetings, transit or on breaks.

The technology is always improving — but more data is not always better.

“We have people who track harvest down to each row or each tree,” Geisterfer said, adding, for most growers, that would create an unwieldy and unusable amount of data, but it’s available for those who want it.

Smartphone and tablet-based systems offer more options and more data for growers, but if they don’t need that data or have someone to manage it, it’s not worth it, Bolanos said. That’s why he said most of his customers prefer the simple scanners for tracking harvest work and tracing produce.

“It’s really helped us improve on analyzing the efficiencies,” said Beth Brown, business manager for Orchard Dale Fruit Co, which grows apples, strawberries and blueberries in Waterport, New York. “How can you really manage workers if you don’t have a system to say, this is our top picker and this guy needs some coaching?”

She credits the FreshQC scanner system the farm adopted several years ago with increasing worker efficiency and payroll efficiency and for improving traceability to ensure quality and food safety. Now, she considers it essential for their business.

“You always want to stay ahead of the curve and keeping moving in the direction the industry is going,” Brown said. •

—by Kate Prengaman