Quality assurance programs for agricultural products are rapidly becoming a fact of life for farmers, yet many view the cost of such schemes purely as an expense, with no tangible benefits. But Martin Barker, managing director of UK-based Genesis QA, says it is possible for producers to extract value from QA programs because they generate a mass of potentially valuable data.
Speaking during a recent visit to Alberta, Barker said that QA programs not only need to be competitively priced, but also should enhance clients’ performance and increase value by providing benefits.
“We have been successful because we will often recover the full cost of membership through the benefits we provide, primarily from the data we collect,” he says.
Data collected during on-farm audits can be used to rank farms, allowing the best producers to benefit. “We have been working with the world’s insurers to derive benefit from this,” says Barker. “One large-scale pig production company in Britain, which we ranked as one of the best, managed to save the equivalent of $80,000 per year on insurance, compared to QA scheme membership fees of $8,000.”
Producers with a lower ranking can be shown what they have to do to improve and how much they could save on insurance, which provides an incentive, he adds.
Genesis QA was started “out of frustration” about 15 years ago, when assurance schemes for the main agricultural sectors were proliferating in the UK.
“There were six single-sector schemes and as a mixed farming operation with cattle, pigs and sheep, we were constantly being bombarded with paperwork to fill in for the various schemes and had different inspectors coming to the farm,” Barker explains.
“We set up a whole-farm scheme, which took out all the elements common across all farm enterprises, such as feed storage, use of medicines, staff training , etc., and put them all together. This avoided all the duplication and created a ‘mainframe with boltons’ approach. Also, a single farm approach saves significant cost by increasing the efficiency of farm auditors.”
The Genesis system provides the platform for internationally recognized certification that can be used by agricultural industry QA programs, food processors and retailers.
“We can certify any set of standards, anywhere in the world,” he says. “There is an equivalence process so that standards that are recognized by accreditation bodies in one country are recognized in most others.” Genesis now serves 18 of the top 30 food groups in the world including Wal-Mart, Tesco, Danish Crown and Smithfield.
Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal.
BALLPOINT ON STEROIDS
Genesis uses technology to benefit the producer and to create value. Central to data capture on the farm – by both the producer and auditor – is the Digipen, a regular ballpoint but bristling with electronics. It writes on special paper, which has minute dots, allowing it to track the letters and numbers with a camera in the tip of the pen. The data is packaged up by a microchip and sent via a Bluetooth mobile phone connection to a server, which stores the data.
A pig producer who enters production data such as breeding and farrowing information can then get reports back very quickly, without having to enter the data again as with regular herd recording programs. This not only saves time but gives rapid access to reports and other information.
“If a sow number is entered incorrectly, the producer gets an e-mail back to his mobile phone, so he can go and correct the error immediately,” says Barker. “Where data is entered into a computer from written records, errors can take a long time to track down.”
Data from the farm is combined with information from other participants in the production process such as the processor, trucking company, feed supplier and producer organizations. This allows sharing of the “pot” of data for mutual benefit and, again, prevents entering the same data more than once. “When a producer buys feed, the supplier generates a delivery sheet. If the supplier then uploads the data to the Genesis ‘Data Warehouse’, the producer can include it in his records without any effort,” says Barker.
“Similarly, the producer’s vet can access farm reports from the system.” However, he stresses, it is the producer that controls the data and only the producer can authorize access by a third party.
Information about farms can be used to benchmark an individual farm or group of farms against international or retailer standards. “We can tell a producer where he stands relative to certain standards and what he has to do to meet a particular standard,” Barker says.
Wherever possible, Genesis tries to generate income from using the data to keep costs down for producers. “We get paid by banks to rank their client portfolio against those of their competitors, he says. “At the same time, we can get improved access to finance and better loan rates for the higher ranked producers within the scheme.”
“Quality assurance is an integral part of a mature supply chain, but many producers perceive it to be something completely different to what it is” Barker concludes. “We imposed regulation and quality assurance in the UK 15 years ago, which was a burden on producers, but now we’ve evolved it to work for us and bring benefits.”