Growers have not always been quick to embrace the opportunities that IT presents to streamline their business. But a combination of tough economic times and a decreasing skills base may mean that even the most diehard traditionalists will have to consider investment in management software.
According to Delamore managing director Wayne Eady, "there are about a dozen leading-edge nurseries, but there are a lot more little ones that are still running blind. They baulk at paying £10,000 for a system, so never get to see the benefits."
This poses problems for the sector's future, he says. "Given that skills availability is diminishing, computers can help fill the gap. There's so much information still held in people's heads."
His own firm is "fully teched up", he says. "We have a Priva environmental computer, which provides accurate costing by crop. That feeds into the management system - the accounting package, sales order processing and forecasting - so at any moment you can see both your forward orders and costs."
The system is a mix of off-the-shelf packages - Priva's climate control and the Sage accounting package - and bespoke elements covering sales management and costing, recently provided by Lincolnshire-based Tandem Software Group.
"You're looking to upgrade hardware and software all the time," says Eady. "This year was a steep investment, but it's partly maintenance-driven - it's what's necessary for our business."
A number of such companies have found a niche supplying the grower market. This year Devon-based Passfield Data Systems has even begun selling systems to overseas nurseries, as far afield as California.
Sales and marketing manager Tim Lamb says: "We still support it from here, even though there's an eight-hour time difference." He sees considerable potential for small and medium-sized UK nurseries to also invest into its management software.
"There are reasonably sized businesses still operating with an accounting package like Sage, and handling sales transactions on an Excel spreadsheet," he says. "In fact, some still do their bookkeeping manually."
Passfield offers time savings by integrating these and other administrative tasks in a single package, he says. "It minimises data entry. Often people end up entering data three times - once when they key their stock list into a spreadsheet, once when they enter their sales into their accounting package, and again into their labelling program. With our system, you select those tasks based on the same data."
Such packages start at around £5,000. "They have a range of settings, so are incredibly flexible," says Lamb. "Later you can expand the number of users and upgrade to things like production planning."
In the past some growers have avoided automation as their customers have not automated their ordering, but this should not deter them, he adds. "The software will email or fax your documents as your customers require. It's quicker than printing it out and faxing it manually - however many times - each month."
An economic squeeze is likely to pressure many businesses into looking for such cost savings. "Businesses will be thinking carefully about what they do," he says.
"Many growers have looked at how to cut production costs, through things like Lean engineering, but in the past that hasn't always been carried through to the office."
Another feature of the software that fresh produce and forestry growers in particular benefit from is traceability, he adds.
Worcestershire-based Bransford Webbs switched to Passfield's stock and sales processing package earlier this year. According to managing director Geoff Caesar: "Stock-keeping, pricing, labelling and selling are unusually complicated in horticulture and we see a fully integrated software suite as an essential part of the solution. The potential of the right software for increased customer service and reduced admin time should not be underestimated."
Liner producer J&A Growers' director Jamie Dewhurst is another advocate of the high-tech approach to management. "We use IT for everything, and outsource tasks such as wages," he says. "I hate to see over-staffed offices." J&A has been using Greenfield Software's Growmaster for some time. "I liked the fact that the demonstrator had experience of horticulture and understood its vagaries," he says.
Dewhurst is a big advocate of the system, he says. "It won't do everything just the way you want it - no off-the-shelf system will. You have to adapt your processes to it."