'Boundary Villa', RMB 3610. Temora. 2666
The Way It Was
When my husband and I started farming in the 1960s, the farm office was a small desk in the corner of the lounge room, a two-drawer filing cabinet, a shelf in the kitchen and a manual phone - also in the kitchen.
Record-keeping was kept to a bare minimum. The bank manager compiled the annual cashflow budget, using information contained largely in my husband's head (often supplemented by details hastily scribbled on the back of an old envelope), and the accountant took care of the information required by the taxation department, using the old shoe-box approach of cheque butts, deposit slips and bank statements. I very rarely saw these two gentlemen in their professional capacity, except when they required my signature, and that didn't take very long.
We did keep some physical records, such as paddock, livestock and rainfall. Paddock and livestock records were recorded in separate books in a narrative fashion, while rainfall was recorded on charts taken from The Land newspaper, or provided by a wool firm, whoever used the best and strongest paper and provided the most space for writing.
Important events were noted on a large calendar. We were also not biased in this regard - whichever firm offered the largest amount of space where the dates were located received the honour of being hung in a prominent place in the kitchen.
Being progressive farmers (or so we thought) we had a whole farm plan, put together by the Soil Conservation Department, consisting of a large aerial photograph of the property with land-use and recommendations for future improvements, drawn in different colours.
Produce and livestock were mainly delivered to boards or consigned to saleyards for agents or wool firms to market as they pleased. We were definitely price takers and not price makers.
Office work was mostly confined to rainy days or evenings, so if it was a prolonged dry spell and a busy period the bills often waited until the next month to be paid. This seemed to be the norm in the farming community and no one seemed to mind or get particularly agitated.
On the whole, the system worked reasonably well, except when the bank manager asked for information for his cashflow projections, the accountant wanted to know what certain blank cheque butts had been used for, and ABARE requested information which my husband, in those days, thought they had no right to demand and was, in his opinion, a complete waste of time. They were the times when I would willingly have gone home to mother, if she had lived a little closer.
In subsequent years, we changed farms and kept adding small parcels of land, until we now have about three times the area we had when we first started farming. When our elder son came home to work on the farm, I was gradually freed from a lot of the outdoor activities with which I had previously been involved. This gave me the opportunity to become more involved with the farm office.
I soon realised it was not going to be as easy as I had first thought - I needed more training. My first move was to undertake the Farm Office Management course offered by the Department of Agriculture, followed by book-keeping and typing at TAFE. This was all very well. I now had a lot of theory, but it still did not help me to put it into practice. The accountant did not particularly like changes to his system, and the bank manager was happier with his version of events, even though it left a lot to be desired and did not accurately predict what was happening. I finally became an external student of the Orange Agricultural College studying Rural Business Administration, graduating in 1992. I am still studying part-time, as the need and opportunity arises. I think education is a lifelong process - it is never too late to start.
Although my initial ambition was to satisfy the requirements of the accountant, the bank manager and the government statistician, this has long ceased to be the main reason records are kept. Now records supply our farming business with accurate, timely information, which is regarded as essential if we wish to run our farm in a business-like manner.
The Present Office
The present farm office started life at one end of a glassed-in verandah at the rear of the main homestead. What was once thought to be a perfectly adequate amount of space for an office has increased until it has now taken over the whole verandah.
There are many advantages to this situation; it is well-lit; has access to both inside and outside the house; and can be shut-off from the rest of the house, if necessary.
There are also disadvantages: because it is used by everyone it is often untidy; dust is a problem; it is hot in summer and cold in winter - when it should be the other way around; and is the resting place for an amazing variety of paraphernalia.
Most of the furniture is second-hand, but does the job quite adequately. No one is too frightened to sit on any of the chairs or to come in with their boots on as the floor-covering is kitchen carpet in earthy tones, which does not show if it has been recently cleaned or not.
As well as desks, there are a number of built-in cupboards, a couple of filing cabinets, bookshelves, chairs and a round table which can be extended if necessary. This is useful for meetings, or as somewhere to put things before a home is found for them. There is also a whiteboard, two notice boards and a large map of the farm.
The library section has become an important part of the office. Here we house reference books, periodicals, newspapers, technical information and at the moment workshop manuals. Books mainly are kept in the bookshelves, with periodicals and arch-lever files being stored in low-cost cardboard magazine and literature files.
All information which is not current, but still needs to be kept, is housed in cardboard archive boxes with lids, which stack neatly one on top of the other. I used to use other cardboard boxes but found that they did not stack very well and usually needed to be taped shut. It was a major operation to get things out. Once a year, items which are no longer currently required are transferred to their respective boxes, e.g. cheque books, bank statements and deposit books go in one box, computer printouts in another, diaries, notebooks, etc, in another.
Apart from the usual small bits and pieces that most offices have, our main items of equipment in the office are a fax machine with its own separate phone line (a decision we have never regretted), a telephone extension, a small photocopier, an electric typewriter, a hand-held recorder and transcription machine and a computer.
The latest addition is a mobile phone. I have yet to have a really good look at this, or use it, but I have been given the number in case I need to call it at any time. We also have UHF radio bases in both homesteads, with mobile units in most vehicles and tractors and the header. Our base is located in the kitchen so it can be heard from all parts of the house.
I would have to say that one of the great advances in recent years has been in the area of communications. It is not so long ago that in order to relay messages I often travelled long distances and wasted a lot of time. Now it is so easy to call on the two-way radio if within calling distance, or the mobile phone if further away. The only drawback to the mobile phone is the need to be within calling range and the cost of the calls.
At the present time, although we probably need one, we do not have an answering machine. The reason for this is that it would need to be located in the kitchen and as that phone is a wall phone, there are some difficulties with finding somewhere to put the answering machine.
Our first computers, in the old Farmfacts days, had built-in modems. We all experimented with these but, after a while abandoned them, due mainly, I think, to the difficulty at that time of connecting to another computer, the state of the phone lines, and the cost of the calls. Most of us nowadays use a fax instead.
Management Information Systems
Over the years we have tried to change our management information system from an initial recording of data, which is then filed away and often forgotten, to a more active system whereby information is organised, summarised, then analysed to make better decisions and projections in the three key areas of Production, Marketing, and Finance.
Not all our record-keeping is wholly computerised. Because not everyone in the family is computer literate, there is a need to be able to access information without turning on the computer. This applied in particular to physical records. The financial records are all kept on the computer, but are printed out each month. Livestock recording is kept to a minimum, as the only livestock currently run are wethers. While our cropping records are more comprehensive and consist of a collection of individual and group spreadsheets, some are made into small booklets which can be carried around. Both the livestock and paddock records are kept in arch-lever files which can be added to at will. We have found that it is easier and less expensive to add a line by hand than to print out the whole page again, just because another line was added.
There is a need for information to flow in and out of the farm office in an orderly fashion. It takes teamwork to do this. When the need arises for new information to be kept, we usually sit down and discuss how we are going to do this and who is going to be responsible. We try to keep the process as simple as possible, having found from experience if it gets too complicated it doesn't get done and the system falls down. The need to keep a record is also often questioned - if it is not necessary or no longer fulfils a purpose we do not keep it.
There is an enormous amount of information currently coming into the farm office. Such things as fax messages, technical information, marketing information, new product information, as well as the information contained in farming magazines, newspapers, periodicals, cassette tapes and videos. This is in addition to that which is generated internally: diary notations, rainfall, paddock, livestock, machinery and financial records (including budgeting). So much for the paperless office we were promised so many years ago.
Well, what do we keep and what do we throw away? If you keep too much, it takes too long to find important information. If you throw away too much, valuable information can be lost. I once had to hunt through the incinerator to find a bank document that had been classed as unimportant....that was some time ago! Everything has to have a home, even if that is the garbage bin. By the way, that is another important item in the farm office - a 60 litre drum with the top cut out, painted on the outside, makes a tremendous rubbish bin and is the right size for a plastic garbage bag insert. It allows a bit of breathing space before the rubbish is actually disposed.
I try to steer clear of deep-litter filing systems and prefer instead to use arch-lever files to store a wide variety of things such as invoices, receipts, correspondence and even small publications. It is a cheap and very effective form of filing, especially when combined with the cardboard storage units previously mentioned.
When people first get a computer and learn how to use it, the most difficult thing is applying this newly acquired knowledge and skill to a practical farming situation. A computer does not automatically generate a wealth of useful information. The basic data have first to be gathered in a format that the computer will recognise. A livestock or paddock program needs to be complete and up-to-date to be useful. If basic items are missed then the reports generated may be misleading.
Many people think they need all sorts of specialised farming programs when, in reality, a good spreadsheet and perhaps a database, in addition to a word processing program, would probably generate most of the information they require. I remember reading a few years ago about an entrant in The Land's Master Farmer competition who kept all his records, both physical and financial, using only a spreadsheet similar to Lotus 123. Of course, it makes sense, if you have a large number of stud stock or are performance recording, to have a program that has been specifically written for that purpose and there are many good ones available.
I have on my computer a Microsoft Office Package, database and desktop publishing programs, as well as a double-entry financial program for farms, although I do not use its budgeting facilities, preferring to use a spreadsheet instead as that gives me more flexibility to generate one which follows a calendar year and not a financial year.
I do have a specialised paddock recording program but as yet I am not using it seriously. I feel once I start relying on it completely I shall be virtually locked into that system and it will be very difficult to change. There are a lot of different options coming out in this area so I am playing a waiting game at present.
I was rather astonished to read recently (Farm Journal, July 1995, p65) an article suggesting farmers would be better off if they bought the now obsolete 386 model computers, that computer technology has gone far beyond the needs of the average farmer and that farmers don't need CD-ROMs. I would suggest that this would only serve to put farmers even further behind in the battle to keep up with technology. While farmers may well be able to do without surfing the internet or CD-ROMs at present, they do need to have the ability to access them in the not so distant future.
In the same article, the old theory of first selecting your software then selecting the hardware to run it was brought up. While this may have been true a few years ago, I believe it is not as applicable today. Programs invariably have upgrades every one or two years. These always use more memory, and often run better on later, faster machines.
I like faster machines. My time is valuable to me and I hate sitting staring at the screen waiting for things to happen. I have a friend who is the same with her iron - she thinks it, too, should be instantly hot when she switches it on, instead of having to wait for it to warm up. My advice to anyone thinking of buying a computer is buy the very latest technology you can afford. If you don't use it the kids will.
My Wish List
The type of office Neil Clark spoke about, with airconditioning of course.
More on-farm visits from my accountant, to enable better financial and taxation management.
To develop better marketing skills.
To learn more about the internet and be able to access it.
A lot of progress has been made in our farm office - information systems and business management skills over the years - but there is still a lot more that can be achieved. There is a constant need for us all to continually update our skills to cope with changing technology. Although we cannot afford to be the earliest innovators, who can afford to be the last?