Agricultural Accounting

Well, Martens Family Farm is finally alive! After months of planning, meetings, more planning, more meetings and more meetings … the business is alive and we are pushing ahead with our plans for an expansion of the hog operation and also freeing up some more time for some partners so that we can continue to push things ahead into the future.

That’s the really exciting part.

The not-so-exciting part is that now we need to keep better track of where money is going, where it is coming from, and what it is being used for and why. That’s the nitty-gritty of what my job is from this point forward. I like to think of my job as “greasing the gears” to make sure that those who know how to farm can continue to do so without needing to worry as much about the money and compliance issues inherit with any business.

Alright, so I lied … that does sound really exciting to me.

What I need now is the ability to easily track income and expenses for an operation where I am only one of for partners and one of any number of people who are going to help on a small-but-growing family operation.

So I get to look at the current state of agricultural accounting software (or just small business accounting software in general, but for use within a farm).

Let me say, I’m not impressed so far.

QuickBooks is the “industry leader” at the moment and so far the online version as a few things going for it:

  1. Access from anywhere.
  2. iOS apps.

Alright, I lied, it really only has two things going for it. Other than that it is a highly complicated and slow web application which has 1000s of options to try to fit into any and all different industries.

I think I also need a basic accounting book to get my head around things.

However, I get the feeling that there has to be something better, easier, and simpler to use to get us started and off the ground. Having a mobile application so that I can easily add income and expenses right where I am would be a bonus.

On the cheap side of things, I have been thinking about trying to use GnuCash to get started. Seeing as it is free and doesn’t try to hem you into any set way of doing things, it looks like a decent lower-tech solution to our problem.

Needless to say I have a lot of work to do as we get things ramped up on our end. I’ll keep posting things as I find them, but I’ll leave with this plea to the software industry at-large:

There is a huge swath of farmers who are nearing retirement age and their younger progeny are going to be taking over the operations or at least taking a more active role in them. There is a huge opportunity to start developing software to serve this industry that doesn’t look like it was written for Windows 95. Do it. We are out there and we want to use software that is good.

Harvest 2012 Retrospective

It is probably the most addicting time on any farm. It drives farmers, farm kids, and prodigal farm kids (of which I am one) to long hours in a field trying to get the crops out as fast as you can. Once they are ready, it is a push to the end.

This year, though, it was a different beast as the dry summer brought harvest a month earlier than hoped, but it also meant that things needed to get done as quickly as possible or else the crop would be too dry to really be worth much of anything. So, off to the fields we went.

Corn went first and went fast. It was dry and to keep the yields as high as possible, that is where the energy was focused. Yes, those are soybeans in the field … I know.

I missed the weekend for a vacation with the family. That’s what happens when things happen a month earlier than expected. However, with the newer equipment that my dad and brother have been accumulating, things went very smoothly. A combine, a semi, a tractor, and a grain cart makes sure things move quickly and smoothly through a cornfield. At one point we were able to fill the semi, dump the semi, and then have another grain cary and combine hopper ready by the time the semi was back. That’s efficiency.

Switching to beans slows things down considerably. Going from 200 bushels/acre of corn to 50 bushels/acre of beans means that you really don’t need to steady work of an additional tractor + grain cart which frees up time for other work to be done in preparation for winter. My brother started work on tillage by chopping the corn stalks in the corn fields and preparing the new ripper as well.

However, there is still stuff to do with the beans and the final act is to try and fill the grain bin. That is when the semi is “semi retired” for the year (that was terrible) and the grain cart gets used to ferry the crop for the field to the make-shift system at the bin to get the soybeans into their metallic home.

 

And that is that. All of the crop it out of the field. Tillage is now the name of the game and hog manure will soon be going into the soybean fields as preparation begins not just for winter, but for the coming year and growing season.

Not to mention that work continues on trying to get an expansion for the hog operation started for next spring. We are currently working through the logistics of the permitting process to add capacity to the current farm site and maybe another site as well. Trying to navigate the crazy regulations that are part of agribusiness today is sometimes mind-boggingly frustrating, but it is what it is … as they say. I’ll hopefully have more to say about that in the future.

Harvest is one of my favorite times of the year. It was something I never really gave much thought to growing up, but it is something that I cherish more each year as my wife and I get more involved and I watch how much my sons love to be out on the farm during that time of year, or really during any time of year.

Being that close to the actual ground of the world is fascinating experience. Pulling the crops out of the field and seeing how much you have completed is a very satisfying experience and unlike the work I do during the rest of my day. Visually seeing progress is exhilarating. Knowing there is an end is comforting.

These are things I now look back and wish I would have known growing up. Would I have become a farmer straight away? No, I don’t think so. However, I would have probably appreciated the opportunities that I did have growing up like I do now.

So, another harvest is in the bag and we look forward to the work to come.

Baskets of Eggs

The phrase “putting all of your eggs in one basket” has always appealed to me.

Even in High School, I didn’t really hang out with a single crowd or do only a single category of things. I played intramural sports, was a part of every music group  I could find, did well academically and was a part of Knowledge Bowl … essentially splitting my time up in multiple “baskets”.

Who knew that it would be the thing I was doing at home that would become my career.

Then in college I was working on my “Education Degree” (scare quotes for effect) but then spent more time working in Network Services and learning that line of work. Multiple baskets (and I should pay attention to what I spend time on … it tends to lead to where I should go).

Now I’m again splitting my eggs up between technology and agriculture. Farming and iPhones. They might seem an oil-and-water sort of thing, but I think that is good (and where real “innovation” happens — again with the scare quotes).

You are always going to have questions on where you should be spending your time and right now I’m looking at not just technology and agriculture, but between the web and iOS. It is common for the choice to never be one of mutual exclusivity, but many times of complimentary area with no right or wrong answer. This is another case of that.

I’ve simply been blown away by the reception of iOS by my family members since I encouraged by mom and brother to purchase iPhones last year. So far they are up to two iPhones, an iPod touch, and an iPad. All of them will be receiving iOS 6 updates tomorrow and I have no fear of letting them just update on their own. That, to me, is freedom. They install and uninstall software themselves and just, overall, use the devices as they are intended without my intervention.

I could not say the same for the Windows boxes and Blackberry phones that they were using before.

That makes me excited about possibly jumping into iOS development with more than just my little toe. However, iOS without the web is pretty bland and so I also continue to look at Ruby and Ruby on Rails for the backend work. However, how much time and effort do I spend on each, especially knowing that I do not know nearly enough of either to be of any use yet.

I know the platform zealots out there who declare iOS-only or web-only and they both sound silly. There is room for both and a need for both as well. However, where do I toss in an extra egg or two to get started on doing more advanced stuff? I just really don’t know.

The Need for a 37signals

37signals has been one of the most influential companies to how I think about software, software development, and business. It is amazing how it has even crept into how I think about the family farm that I grew up on and am now working to become a larger part of.

One thing has become abundantly clear since getting more involved: the software space for agriculture is terrible. Not that there are not options (there are plenty), but that the options look so terrible or offer no ability to work on anything other than Windows 95 (exaggeration on my part) as to be almost considered criminal. The sites don’t show pictures of the software working, there are very few web options that are easy to find, and mobile? What is mobile?

Farming is in need of a 37signals. A small firm to come in and blow up the farm management space with a lean, attractive, small farm software option that takes some of the pain away. The “big win” here is that any metrics or historical record keeping would be a huge step up for many operations, and digitizing the whole thing and storing it “in the cloud” (I hate that term) would mean that backups would be handled and it would be a simple thing to get up and running on a new machine.

Do I know what this software would do? No, not yet, maybe not never. However, I do see a need and with the farming economy where it is right now I also know that there is money available in the industry. I hope that someone, anyone, will fill this void.