Your harvest management tool, AgPick, is your flagship product. Can you briefly outline how this technology works and the benefits it’s delivering to your customers?
Henrietta Child: Our AgPick system has two components. First, there is a scanning app that currently runs on Android mobile devices. It is used to record attendance, work times and picking data.
Secondly, there is a web portal that reports on staff activity and product yield, at the block level. This is summarised to each day or a range of days. We report on attendance, weight or item count and hours worked, including break times and productivity.
We use this data to calculate piece rates and top up payments.
You’re also working with South Australian citrus company Ingy’s Citrus to develop an automated, GPS-based picking app called AgPick Orchard. How does this solution work and how does it differ from the original AgPick platform?
HC: Our flagship AgPick product relies on supervision to ensure accurate records are captured via the scanners of work times and picking activities.
In orchard fruits, where supervision may be less practical, it makes sense to put reporting in the hands of the pickers themselves. However, a controlled process is still important.
AgPick Orchard has been designed to allow pickers to register their own phones in the system and then use them to report their attendance, start and finish work times and breaks.
They can also notify a forklift driver when a bin is ready for collection. The new app uses GPS location to accurately record the origin of the fruit and builds a map interface for the driver to use so they can plan the most efficient way to pick up completed bins.
Drivers can reject a bin if it is not full or doesn’t meet quality requirements. This will automatically notify the picker to come back and fix it.
All this data flows into our current AgPick web portal.
You’ve mentioned piece rates. They are a hot topic in the Australian industry, stemming from forthcoming changes under the Horticulture Award. This includes the introduction of a minimum pay rate. Will your platforms help growers meet this requirement while continuing to pay piece rates?
HC: Yes, we are currently implementing top up payments into our piece rate calculator to help growers meet the new requirements.
When the decision to introduce the minimum rate under the Horticulture Award was announced, people were saying “we’re going to have to give up piece rates.”
From what I’m hearing now, growers are going to continue paying piece rates, but they’ll have to know how to make the top up payments (to meet the minimum rate where required).
To do this, they need better information about the productivity and performance of their workers.
We’ve always had that productivity and performance information coming through our portal, so you can see who your top performers are. More to the point, you can see the people who aren’t doing very well.
When calculating piece rates, growers don’t just need to calculate a piece rate and work out what the payment is going to be for each person, they need to identify who falls under that bar of the minimum hourly rate, and then apply the top up amount.
What we’re currently doing is implementing that into our piece rate calculators, so growers can see who’s going to have a top up. They can then calculate the total top up money that they’re putting in each day or each week.
It’s important to see who you’re topping up and how much, as this might mean you need to take action. If you’ve got a really big top up amount, that would be a warning sign that some pickers were less effective performers.
So, piece rates remain a viable option for growers, providing they have the tools to manage this payment system?
HC: We hope so. It will just be about the ability to make them work without turning into a nightmare for growers.
We’ve set up our platforms to keep things really simple, growers have all the inputs they need to do the calculations.
Having said this, it goes beyond having a calculation that’s easy. You need records and data there to show anybody who comes to audit your system that you know the hours people are working and you are keeping proper records of their activity.
But yes, I think piece rates are still a viable option. You’re just going to need tools to be compliant.
The other side of this is our platform can very easily swap between piece rate and hourly rate. A lot of companies will put people on an hourly rate when they first start picking, maybe for the first two or three days. Our system supports that, and you can flip over to piece rate if and when you’re ready.
Given the workflow on each farm or orchard differs on a daily basis, does AgPick tailor its platforms to the needs of each business?
HC: We don’t really tailor our system for new customers but we do implement new functions and extensions at times, which are helping to grow our product.
The AgPick system is designed to be configurable. We can adjust how the system is set up to support different operational needs without changing our base system.
Configuration is vital to the fresh produce sector as conditions and operations can vary greatly -our system needs to support many picking and operational processes depending on the produce being grown, the time of the season and the expectations of the current team.
In your view, are growers starting to understand and appreciate the role technology can play in streamlining their operations and unlocking added value?
HC: Growers are looking for technology solutions, yes, but many are still wary of whether they will achieve the benefits being touted, and whether the system will be value for money.
From our experience, growers will adopt technology if it’s not too far from their existing process. If it is removed from their process, they’ll look at you and say “we can’t do that.”
Changing operational processes to fall in line with the demands of an IT system can be confronting for any business, perhaps more difficult when you have a fresh crop out there waiting to be picked.
For us as an agritech company, we really need to be in step with our customers. It’s important to be able to say: “Okay, if that’s the operation you want to do, yes, we can set up a workflow for that and it won’t take very long.”
Interesting. So, you’ve designed your platforms with user simplicity in mind?
HC: Absolutely, our system has been designed to appear simple. We’re like a swan floating on a lake. Underneath the surface we’re doing a lot of processing, but up top it’s virtually effortless. For the user, our systems are really straightforward.