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Magazine Cover Thanks to a handheld unit, a grower in North Carolina is able to simplify payroll and keep track of piecework and hourly records.
Piecing It All Together
By Rosemary O. Gordon
Managing Editor
American Vegetable Grower - September 2003

KEEPING track of your employees can be a feat unto itself, especially when you hire hundreds of migrant workers during the harvest season. Veteran growers Douglas and Linda Wilson knew there had to be a better way to track employees that didn't involve mountains of paperwork and punching time clocks, so they decided to explore some options.

The Wilsons own DL&B Enterprises Inc. in Clinton, NC, and they grow about 1200 acres of eggplant, squash, cucumbers, peppers (including jalapeno), and zucchini - all with plasticulture. The couple has been operating the farm for the past 40 years. Prior to that, Douglas' parents, Houston and Oleita Wilson, worked the land.

Today, DL&B has about 30 full-time employees, some of whom have been with the company for more than 15 years. During the harvest season, however, there are between 600 and 700 workers. As it became increasingly more challenging to document worker activity for the payroll, the Wilsons decided to turn to a handheld unit and computer software to help them create a more efficient way to complete this management task.

Computerized Payroll

As this is a family business, the Wilson's daughter, Christy Bustabad, is in charge of the farm's computer department, or as her mother Linda says, "She mans the computer system." Christy also was instrumental in getting the ball rolling for the payroll project.

Christy's huband, Peter Bustabad, is also active in the business. An 18-year veteran of the farm, Peter is in charge of fertigating and irrigating the crops.

It is Christy, though, who keeps DL&B up to date with the important task of paying its workers. She handles the migrant payroll for the crew leaders.

"We cut a check for each employee on the farm," explains Linda. "So there are times that we actually cut 600 or more checks per week."

Providing that many checks each week is not a simple job. According to Christy, she tried numerous computer programs on the market to help her with this task, but none of them met all of the farm's needs.

"We have tried several different programs that would help us gather information and bring it to the office for payroll without manually inputting the data," she says. "We were looking for something with portability that was very user friendly, could serve several different purposes on the farm, and most importantly, was cost effective."

Gathering Data

The Wilsons found what they were looking for about four years ago. The process began when they got together with a computer programmer and started a company called Mobile FarmWare, LLC. Armed with ideas on what was needed in a farm-friendly program, the Wilsons conveyed their thoughts to the programmer.

The result is PieceWorker, a program that runs on a handheld unit, using the Palm Operating System. The unit looks similar to and has many of the same functions as a Palm Pilot, says Christy.

The inclusion of a low-power laser scanner from Symbol Technologies allows for bar codes to be scanned without draining the lithium battery inside the unit, she says. In addition, a desktop program was developed as a companion piece.

How It Works

Here is how PieceWorker operates: A user takes the handheld unit to the fields and collects data from workers by scanning each worker's bar-coded photo ID badge. Specifically, the data that is being gathered from the workers' ID badges includes start time, stop time, single-unit piecework, or multi-unit piecework.

In single-unit mode, the PieceWorker handheld program allows users to log another "piece" worked or earned by the employee by simply scanning the worker's ID badge. In multi-unit mode, the user scans the worker's ID, and then manually enters the number of units worked or earned with the help of a built-in calculator, if necessary. Multi-unit work includes activities such as stringing produce, explains Christy.

PieceWorker also is used for keeping track of what is being hand-packed in the packing shed. "We use the handheld unit to clock the labor in and out of the packing shed," adds Douglas. "We have 190 people that walk through in two lines while we clock them in and out in less than five minutes."

It may sound a bit complex, but Christy says operating the handheld unit is very easy. "We tried to keep it simple so that you don't have to have a computer background in order to run it," she says.

In fact, the unit is coded in both Spanish and English, as many of the migrant workers speak Spanish.

After the information is gathered, the handheld unit is then brought back into the office. The data is downloaded to the desktop program, and it is organized based on the information that was scanned.

The desktop program includes basic employee information, job identification, and codes, explains Christy. It can also generate photo IDs with bar codes. "We have probably eliminated about two full-time people in this office with the development of this program," adds Linda.

The program also has the capability of creating an output file so that other payroll accounting software can read the file. This eliminates the need for hiring someone to key in every employee for every hour they have for that week or that day, says Linda. It also eliminates the need for timecards or timesheets.

A Stand-Alone Program

Another reason PieceWorker is valuable to the Wilsons is that it is a standalone program. "You collect the data, do the editing and corrections, and then print hard copies of the reports," says Linda. "When you have satisfied all those needs, you send it up to accounting for payroll."

Christy says they have sold the program to two growers in North Carolina who have used it successfully. Now the Wilsons are working with programmers to expand Mobile FarmWare and its PieceWorker software to be used by other farms and industries. "The development of a Web site, www.mobilefarmware.com, is helping to get our software out and into the market," she adds.

DL&B is working to make this program adaptable to most situations and most farms, adds Douglas. In fact, he says there may be possibilities for its use not only in the farming industry but for any industry that has to collect data for payroll or job accounting.

"It's been the best tool we've had to manage the farm," says Linda. "We had hundreds of people scattered across the farm and keeping track of what everyone was doing was very difficult." AVG


Direct comments or questions about this article to rosemary_gordon@meisternet.com.

This article has been reproduced from the September 2003 edition of American Vegetable Grower (AVG)