Tracing Success

“Why do I need to help trace products from the manufacturer to the field?” a retailer might ask. Well, it may well be required before long in all crop production areas — but such a high level of tracking can also truly help dealers improve their businesses, Carl Bartenhagen of the Mid America Croplife Association (MACA) would say.

He is part of a team at MACA that has spent more than $100,000 and several years hashing out just what traceability would be like for the crop inputs industry. The group has dubbed their efforts the Traceability Implementation Project (TIP) and has devoted the past two years to creating a “template” for the process and tools a dealer would need, says Bartenhagen.

Nuts And Bolts

In their work, the TIP team identified two key components for traceability: hardware (primarily hand-held units) and software.

While the group discussed creating their own software, the time and expertise needed make that task a bit daunting. Besides, there are many good programs already on the market which handle inventory management. The team interviewed several software companies and particularly liked what they saw from AgWorks of Eldridge, IA, as their DOC software captures product movement information in the normal course of an ag supplier’s day to day business activity. They also archive this product movement information for all product and services shipped and supplied — and can communicate with accounting systems. “Our software is agronomy-based. It starts on the agronomy side and feeds into the accounting side,” explains Clyde Martin, president of AgWorks.

The company also offers SmartGun software which operates on a handheld device “that looks like a remote control for a TV,” explains Bartenhagen. It receives product and application information before an applicator arrives at the field. Once in the field, actual amount of product used for each order is entered. That information can be transferred to a dealer’s business system. Currently the software can be used on two different platforms, but there’s the possibility in the future of more handhelds being utilized.

Giving It A Try

With the help of AgWorks, TIP leaders identified three retailers that were approached to try out this first phase in traceability standardization: Vogel Fertilizer, Hamburg, IA; Cooperative Supply Inc., Dodge, NE; and Reddy Ag Service, Stitzer, WI. Two of the three have experience with AgWorks’ DOT requirement software. “Each dealer is interested in innovation, wants better inventory control and more management tools. Additionally, each dealership is dedicated to this process,” says Martin.

At presstime, all three dealerships had received on-site instruction from AgWorks, as the company took its mobile training lab to them. “They are going through the process of implementation and managing change — which means work and some change in operating processes. That’s sometimes challenging … for all of us,” says Martin. (CropLife® will be following the efforts of these three retailers in coming months and report their experiences.)

Worth The Effort

While product tracing is not common in the Midwest, “on the West Coast, this is not even a discussion,” Bartenhagen points out. “Growers are asked to keep track of everything: How much fertilizer they put on, what pesticides they put on, what seed variety they use — that’s just normal operations out there.” Many in the industry believe before long Homeland Security or another government agency will require product tracking in all states. “It’s not if traceability is going to be needed at the retail level, it’s when,” says Bartenhagen.

But such traceability has a silver lining — several, in fact. It could lessen the amount of shrinkage a business suffers when product inadvertently heads out the door without getting recorded — and maybe without getting billed. “And we think capturing real-time information at the field level is going to help the dealer help the farmer make decisions on things like what to plant, what to do the next year,” Bartenhagen says.

Martin would say such close customer contact is really value-added sales. “That’s consultive selling. And it’s really connected to track and trace because the more closely you work with the grower, the more ability you have to provide traceability.”

Down The Road

A number of issues will need to be addressed as the TIP team continues its work. “At present, our industry does not have an effective warehouse management system, which includes bar codes on all packages,” says Bartenhagen. “Part of the puzzle will be to get manufacturers and distributors to put bar codes on all their products.”

In addition, wireless capabilities for electronic components — much like companies such as UPS uses — will be needed. “When the UPS driver comes to your door and has you sign for a package, he points the handheld device at the bar code on his master list and pushes a button to show you’ve signed for it,” describes Bartenhagen. “That information is sent wirelessly to a central location and you can jump on the Internet to immediately confirm that delivery.”

While hammering out an industry-wide traceability standard is a huge job, MACA is just the group to do it. The association has been proactive in the past, addressing industry issues such as mini-bulk storage and warehouse policies. In fact, the research and “grunt” work the group has done paved the way for standards that EPA is currently using.

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