Production horticulture is a diverse industry, which limits the scope for one-size-fits-all management software. But enterprising developers are working with growers to produce systems that are tailor-made to their needs.
Codeway, which develops solutions for a range of manufacturing industries, has worked with Lincolnshire vegetable transplant grower Westhorpe over the past four years to develop a package to manage the production and ordering process.
The site, consisting of 4ha of glass and polytunnels, grows 100 million Brassica and leek plants a year - around half of them organic - making it one of the largest organic vegetable transplant growers in the country.
In operation almost all year round, the company delivers down to Suffolk and up to Scotland and employs three full-time staff, with a further three in-season. "But we usually have more people in the office than doing the work because of the bureaucracy," says owner Roger White.
The Plant Trace system, now in its first full year of operation, helps minimise this, handling around 2,000 customer orders a year.
For each batch of young plants, the system records the batch number, variety, number of trays, customer and planting date - all information that can be printed on plant "stick" labels and bed labels (green for organic plants, white for conventional), along with a 2D barcode.
Company administrator June Downs notes: "You can't print a conventional (single dimension) barcode onto a stick label. And a 2D label is far easier for the handset to read because you can do it from any angle."
The use of roaming handsets enables workers to add extra information to a batch's record such as the application of a chemical treatment - which also has a barcode that can be scanned - or movement to another bay of the glasshouse. This information is then uploaded onto the main computer when the handset is returned to its docking station at the end of the day.
"We don't have Bluetooth for direct data exchange between the two, but that could be set up," says White. He adds that being able to use the handset to locate a given batch while on the nursery "is probably the most valuable thing of all".
Orders come in by a variety of means, from emails to customers arriving in person with the seed, he says. For simplicity, the batch code used by the customer can be retained.
A seeding sheet is then printed off and taken along with the seed and the batch labels to the seeding machine, where trays are prepared. "With all the data coming from one place, there are fewer mistakes," says Downs.
The company had previously tried another software package, without success, White adds. "It's not until you get going that you find out its limitations." Yet he is convinced there is a business case for such investment.
"We probably have saved on labour with the system. One member of staff has left and not been replaced." The remaining two office staff "have got it very tight", he adds.
The development of the package is still ongoing, with updates from Codeway arriving in the form of email attachments. "Installing them is very quick," says Downs.
However, the strongest argument for such a system comes from the demands of the modern fresh produce sector, White argues.
One company, Westhorpe supplies, which in turn supplies finished vegetables to Sainsbury's supermarkets, is obliged to provide full traceability within the hour.
"They call us up when they get to 59 minutes," White jokes."That's the main thing that made us go down this route. They want to know all the chemicals that were used, when they were sown and in what compost."
Besides the demands of individual customers, the nursery must meet the requirements of certification schemes such as GlobalGAP. "They want to see traceability," says White.
"But the driving force behind it is the supermarkets themselves, who want to know everything you're doing and also the environmental legislation. And some growers won't deal with anyone who isn't audited."
It also helps maintain growing standards within the nursery, he adds. "If something isn't germinating well, you can look back and see why. And we can also look back to see what a grower ordered last year."
Of the 22 members of the Plant Propagators Association, only three are currently using such a system, White adds."I'm amazed how poor the take-up is. How other growers manage just doing it manually I do not know. But pressure from the supermarkets will mean they will have to change eventually. It's also surprising how few growers know how many plants per acre they have," he says, adding that automated planting is likely to change this.
Consolidation in the sector means that "any new customers we have are likely to be big", he adds - and as a consequence, the nursery is expanding its growing area.
And the system is not only for the fresh produce sector. "It would work for ornamental growers too, though there would be more batches because the number of species involved is higher," says White.
According to Codeway sales manager Barry Day: "It's a question of what's appropriate for you as a grower. It's not new technology, but people are being more innovative and adventurous in how they use it. Some small companies have it, but with some big ones, the idea is still on paper."
Within the ornamental nursery sector, Greenfield Software's Growmaster is well established but about to receive an overhaul, says sales director Daniel Harris.
"It has been around for a few years and around 240 growers are using it. We are now in a big process of redesigning it and providing new functions, which should be ready for next summer."
These include an electronic point-of-sale (EPoS) module to handle point-of-sale transactions. "Many nurseries have a retail side too but so far they have had to use separate EPoS and grower management software," he says.
The new module will give similar functionality to dedicated retail-only packages, including loyalty card management. In addition, a new production planning module will boost growers' abilities to manage their business over the course of the season.
"You can put in the week number you'd like the plants ready and it will prompt you when goods need to be ordered," says Harris. "It will also allow cost planning for things like pots and compost and even manage the planting space."
A revised user interface will also make operating the software simpler and more intuitive, reducing training of new staff, he adds, pointing out that enhancing existing software packages is also less of a burden on growers than starting anew.
"Almost all the bigger nurseries already have systems in place, but it's a hassle to have to change over to a whole new system. If it's a 20-user system, that's a lot of time and effort, along with training costs.
"A lot of smaller nurseries don't have any management software though - they may have looked at it but decided they couldn't justify the expense. For them we have reduced the price of a single-user licence from £3,150 to £999."
Showing there is still room for new products in the sector, Qsys successfully launched its Horticultural Management System (HMS) earlier this year, says sales manager Richard Simmons.
"We haven't shown at Four Oaks before, but after this year we probably have enough business to take us through to next year's show. It is a full corporate accounting package that includes stock control, EPoS and e-commerce. The only thing it won't do are your wages."
This means growers and retailers don't need the separate expense of both an accountancy tool such as Sage and a dedicated nursery management package, he says.
HMS is built on a general-purpose platform adapted to the needs of the horticulture sector. "Stock control is different from in other industries in that it increases in value as you leave it," he adds.
Operators can take pocket computers around the nursery, recording aspects of the plants' development such as height, or any problems with growth.
Simmons concedes that not all growers will need management software. "There are some who manage to run their nurseries with it all in their heads. They probably don't need our system or anyone else's. If you have a turnover below about £750,000 it's probably hard to justify. But on a turnover of £2m you will need something to manage your business.
"One company we supply has just gone over from using spreadsheets to using our system, including online ordering. That means that its reps can put a sale through while they are still with their customers."
Not all applications need to be bang up to date to serve a nursery's purpose though, he adds. "Fifteen years ago we wrote a management package in DOS for a supplier of young plants to the forestry industry. It's been so reliable that they're still using it and won't invest in anything new."
Most suppliers of nursery management software also provide labelling solutions, either within the core software or as a compatible package.
According to sales manager Barry Day of Codeway, flexibility is now key. "With a tin of baked beans, there is one barcode for everyone. But Wyevale want a Wyevale label, barcode and price and B&Q will want another. So growers don't know how to label a plant until they sell it."
Data for the labels can come in at the last minute. To cope with this, Codeway offers Green Machines, a solution that gives flexibility in label printing while also allowing high volume throughput. Plant pots or trays can be loaded in any order onto a conveyor belt, where a scanner reads the barcodes on plant care tags.
Using this data to identify the order data from the database, the system then prints and applies a tailor-made label and creates a transaction record at the same time.
Greenfield Software provides a dedicated labelling package called HLS, which is used by both growers and garden centres to produce individual plant labels and bedding cards, according to Daniel Harris.
Hampshire-based Lowaters Nursery changed to management software from Passfield Data Systems one year ago, but an enhancement to the system known as the E-Availability list will shortly streamline the sales process further, according to nursery director Charles Carr.
"We may have negotiated specific plant offers to individual customers and the system will reflect that by producing a bespoke availability list," he says. These are sent out in the form of spreadsheets, which when returned can be incorporated automatically in the system as sales orders, dramatically cutting keying-in time.
"It's something I wanted from the beginning," he says. "We are conducting internal trials with the system and it should be fully up and running by spring. The potential time savings are enormous. It will streamline the dispatch process and let us turn orders around faster."
He sees the change as part of a trend within the industry. "It's becoming more sales-focussed," he says. "Now our sales team can access information about our range while on the phone to a customer. It will say how many there are, when they're ready and it even gives an image and a description of every plant."
Previously the company was managing sales through a stock management package, he adds. "Whereas what we really wanted was a sales package that would also let us manage the stock. Passfield has resolved a lot of the problems we had and though changing over was not without hiccups, it was less upheaval than we expected."
Carr adds: "The nice thing about the system is it's very user-friendly, with a simple, top-down menu. It has taken around one man-day a week out of the process, which is time that can be spent talking to customers."
Codeway Tel: 01206 751300; view: www.codeway.com
Greenfield Software Tel: 01480 403909; view: www.greenfieldsoftware.co.uk
Passfield Data Systems Tel: 01404 514400; view: www.passfield.co.uk
Qsys Tel: 01939 233666 view: www.qsys.co.uk.