Foothill Packing, a California farm labor provider, is looking at a food industry safety initiative as a potential opportunity to expand its ERP system.
Foothill Packing, based in Salinas, Calif., supplies migrant seasonal workers for fruit and vegetable growers in California and Arizona, with 2,000 to 2,500 employees on its payroll every week.
In 2004, the company adopted Microsoft Dynamics Navision — a midrange enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform. Foothill, which has one IT person on staff, then had the software customized by an outside IT firm, said Paul H. Powell, director of finance and administration for the company.
“I’ve used software in other companies — I won’t mention who they are, because it’s not complimentary to them — but their attitude has been, ‘Well, you may have to adjust the way you do business to fit the software.’ I say, you know what? That’s backwards,” Powell said. “I want a platform that is scalable; that is customized to support the way we have to do our business.”
“We have a lot of regulations in the way we have to do business, so I want something that is tailored to support the way we do business and to meet all of our various compliance requirements,” he said.
Foothill uses an IT consultant, Fremont, Calif.-based Oztera to customize the Microsoft ERP software. Foothill runs the software on its own servers, located in its offices, with an offsite server backing up the system on a 15-second delay.
Foothill chose the Microsoft ERP software after evaluating several competing platforms for their scalability and ability to customize. The company hired Oztera in 2006, after the firm that had installed the software could not keep up with Foothill’s customization demands.
Generally, the system is supported by the three-legged stool of employer contracts, employee cards and regular general ledger/accounting functions.
“All three have to be integrated. And we keep integrating more and more stuff into it, because I don’t like a whole lot of information being on multiple platforms — the training errors, double entries, all the problems that you encounter with that type of setup,” Powell said.
He said he also doesn’t like it when people keep elaborate Excel files for regular payroll-related functions. “Excel is great; it’s a good work tool for analysis. But if you’re maintaining basic information on it, then that’s bad. It needs to be on the platform — attach it to the employee card, or attach it to the contract card. Why are you keeping this big schedule on an Excel worksheet?”
Over time, Foothill has incorporated more and more functions into the ERP software, working toward a single, vertically integrated platform, Powell said.
One ERP area that Foothill is looking to build out is related to the Produce Traceability Initiative, a voluntary movement led by produce industry associations that aims to track cases of produce from the field to the store as a means of improving food safety and making potential recalls more precise.
As Foothill looks at the cost of gathering electronic information for the PTI, it also is considering how it currently records information on a paper crew sheet in the field, such as the times that crews report to work and their break periods, which is passed on to the payroll department for data entry.
“If we’re going through all of this effort out in the field to capture this traceability information, then why don’t we just put in the crew information right out in the field and then transmit that to the server, and create the basic payroll data entry off a handheld device?” Powell asked.
Foothill is going through a beta phase with a system that is programmed to take the information from the field and prefill the basic payroll journal entry.
With PTI, the retailers — such as Wal-Mart, Knob Hill and Safeway — want the information but aren’t offering to pay more for it, Powell said. They push PTI liability down to the grower-shippers, such as Dole, Taylor Farms and Mann Packing, who turn to the farmer or harvester with the same demand. But the grower-shippers aren’t going to pay extra either.
“It’s an industry-driven issue, and the traceability is important — it’s huge for food safety. You talk about [return on investment]: How do I pay for this? If I can do more with the same number of people, I’m netting a big savings.”
By investing in the PTI field technology and integrating that technology into its ERP, Foothill Packing not only eliminates potential payroll data-entry errors; the company gains a competitive advantage in bidding on harvesting contracts for the Doles of the world, Powell said.
“If you want to play with them, then you’d better be able to show that you can play in the majors,” he said.
Foothill Packing faces two main challenges with PTI, Powell said: finding an affordable handheld device that works well in the field, and bringing new technology to a work culture that is resistant to change.
The device has to have a screen that isn’t too small, but it has to be easy to carry around. And it has to be virtually indestructible, Powell said.
“You’re out in adverse weather,” he said. “It gets cold, it gets wet, it’s dusty, it’s dirty. The field foremen and crew leaders — their office has four wheels. So they live out of their truck.”
While crew leaders may balk at adding new technology to their work, the skills they demonstrate in their everyday use of their personal smartphones show that the hurdles aren’t technical, Powell said.
“Some of it is a cultural rebellion to the technology. It takes a little time to get over this. In the ag field profession, when you become a foreman or a supervisor, most all of them are in their early 40s, so it’s not so much an old-dog/new-tricks, but it is a traditional-way/well-we’ve-always-done-it-that-way. That’s one that takes a little time to get past.”
Powell said he doesn’t have a formal IT budget, but he spends time reviewing the areas of the company that rely on technology, and asking employees about the execution: What are their work flow issues, what works well for them and what is awkward or nonsensical? Then he develops a priority list of potential projects to discuss with the Oztera software developers, and the company and the consultants plan how they can build off of existing code or write new software to address the needs.
Still to be incorporated on the ERP platform: maintenance and driver logs for Foothill’s trucking and transportation businesses. Foothill has about 90 commercial truck drivers, with 60 buses providing free transportation for its workers and 13 long-haul trucks taking produce from the field to the cooler, regulated by state and federal departments of transportation. Another item on the list is adding photo identification to the employee files.
Foothill is also considering how to electronically store its paper records — “cabinets upon cabinets upon cabinets” of papers, Powell said. They which include everything from mandatory training records for its forklift operators to California-mandated CPR and sexual harassment trainings to in-the-field safety meetings, held on topics ranging from proper knife sharpening techniques for broccoli harvesters to food safety issues.
Powell said he has pitched his software developers on an idea to have the paper records scanned into electronic storage — offline storage, to lessen the burden on the company’s servers. The offline storage would be linked to the live database, with the ability to retrieve records of every safety meeting and training session attended by a particular employee, simply by typing in his or her employee number. It would also have to be indexed to allow for calling up categories of records, such as every employee who attended a particular training in a particular month.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement allows employers to electronically store I-9 Forms, which are filled out by new employees to verify identity and employment authorization to work in the U.S.
That would save on a lot of paper storage, and other documents could be digitized in the same employee file, Powell said. “Why not put in their employment application and W-4 — all of the paperwork that is filled out when an employee comes to work for you, scan it into offline storage, and link it to the live database?”