Techniques: Microcases

Inventory Management

Problem: Keeping pace with crop demands
Solution: Mapping software
Payoff: More and better produce

Peter Beaton was swamped. In just three years a flood of customers had forced him to expand the cultivated bogs of his Beaton Cranberry Growers Service by 30%, to more than 1,000 acres. Instead of the two kinds of cranberries the Wareham, Mass., company had been growing, Beaton's 42 employees were now tending five varieties, each with its own particular needs, and agricultural experts were recommending as many as eight fertilizer applications during each year's three-month season.

Since the days when Peter's grandfather and father had farmed cranberries, the Beatons had done little to change their system for figuring out how much of which fertilizers to order. CEO Peter, his brother Doug, and 12 foremen jotted down their observations as they walked around the bogs. They couldn't simply phone in the same order year after year because fertilizer choices are affected by variables ranging from weather conditions to the specific nutritional needs of each variety.

When he returned to the farm's office, Peter Beaton took a map of his farm and, assigning a different color to each fertilizer type, filled in the map with varying shades to indicate fertilizer needs, area by area. With some 25 kinds of fertilizer to choose from, the task meant hours of tedious work. And even after Beaton spent three days creating the map, the totals it reported were only estimates. Furthermore, the map was such a hodgepodge of colors that faxing it to the suppliers was beyond consideration. Hours of the fertilizing season would be wasted while Beaton hand-delivered the map to the suppliers, some as far away as 20 miles.

Each supplier would then compute Beaton's order from the map and forward bags of fertilizer to a waiting helicopter pilot, who'd use the map to guide him over the bogs. All too often, though, the order would fall short, and the pilot would be obliged to return for additional supplies. Pilots wouldn't stop their meters during such a hiatus, so at $400 an hour, mistakes were pricey.

Beaton's wife, Deborah, formerly an entomologist for Ocean Spray, wondered whether he could use computers to improve the process. For suggestions she asked her former colleagues, who recommended that she purchase MapInfo Professional (800-327-8627, $1,295). Working with consultant Kevin Hanron from Charles River Technologies, in Lexington, Mass., she built a database that contained particulars on every acre of the cranberry farm as well as all application information related to each fertilizer the farm used.

These days Peter still walks the bogs, but when he returns to the office with his notes, he turns to his computer and enters his findings, section by section. Choosing from drop-down menus of fertilizers, he can generate--in a couple of hours--a map that details the quantities and types of fertilizer he will need. He then faxes the map to his supplier, who doesn't miss having to fiddle with the math, and to the helicopter pilot, who appreciates a map that not only lists precise quantities but also highlights power lines and environmentally sensitive areas.

So pleased is Deborah with her system that she and Charles River recently formed a venture, Cranberry Technologies Inc., to sell their custom program to other growers. But for Peter the greatest benefit is being able to spend time, he says, "working on the bogs, instead of sitting around coloring maps."