29 May 1998

PICKING A COMPUTER SYSTEM

FOR THE JOB…

By Louise Impey

A NEED for detailed, up-to-date management information prompted Cambridgeshire grower Judith Clements to upgrade the farms computer system earlier this year.

With four farming companies and two other businesses to keep track of and maintain records for, the original decision to become computerised was taken 10 years ago.

"Our reasons for buying a computer system then were based on speed and ease of processing," recalls Mrs Clements. "On the advice of our accountant, we bought an off-the-shelf accounts package, rather than specialist agricultural software, from a local company."

Although the original package adequately met the book-keeping requirements of the various businesses, Mrs Clements found that the management information needed to make decisions about the farms was lacking.

"As the years have gone by and margins have tightened, we have needed more and more analysis to keep on top of the businesses and make informed cropping and purchasing decisions. And record-keeping requirements have increased enormously.

"We began to find that it was easier to get what we wanted from a manual recording system than to try and get it out of the computer."

She adds that a good example of this is the replacement of farm machinery. "We need to be able to find out just how much we have been spending on machinery repairs, per individual machine," she explains. "Our old system could give us the total yearly expenditure, but could not break it down by tractor.

GM analysis wanted

"In the same way, we have often wanted to look at the gross margin performance of a certain crop, but found it very cumbersome, so relied on others to produce the figures."

Having recognised the need to upgrade, Mrs Clements began the purchasing process. As well as better reporting and analysis, she needed the ability to prepare budgets and cash-flows and was keen to be able to keep field records.

"We also wanted to purchase both hardware and software from one supplier, so that any problems could be resolved quickly."

Her other priorities were to ensure that they bought Windows-based software which had the flexibility to handle both farming and non-farming businesses and could be used by the accountant at the end of the year. The ever increasing volume of paperwork coming through the farm office was also a consideration.

Landmark system suits

After looking at the various packages on offer and talking to other farmers, Mrs Clements opted to go with Landmark Systems.

"They listened carefully to our requirements and came up with a package which could do everything we specified," continues Mrs Clements. "We have installed Key Accounts and their payroll program, and will be putting the Farmade field records onto the system later this year.

"We needed a supplier who not only understood our situation at the outset, but could also give us good support afterwards. Landmark even involved our accountant in the sales process."

Training came as part of the package and enabled the system to be set up quickly. Farm secretary Sue Bates is responsible for most of the data entry, while the reporting and analysis is done by Mrs Clements.

"Obviously after 10 years we have noticed quite a difference in the processing speed of the computer and flexibility of new Windows software," remarks Mrs Clements. "What we like about the new system is that it is very user-friendly and forgiving.

"Thats important because we are not particularly computer literate and, like many farmers, dont have the time to become experts."

Her advice to other farmers considering either a first-time purchase or an upgrade is to be clear about what they want to get out of it. She also stresses that buying the cheapest system can be a false economy.

"I went slightly over my budget, but I got the right system for this business. Specialist agriculture software is more expensive, but it has been worth it.

"Already I am more in control of the business and making good use of the information."

Information is everything…

Computer systems must provide useful data to help run the farm more efficiently, says Cambs-grower Judith Clements (right). The package she bought from Landmark Systems is run by Sue Bates (left) and has given the flexibility she wanted – including full gross margin analysis.