Climate: The ultimate uncertainty in farming is, of course, the weather. Responding to weather events like extreme heat or rain are the most urgent problems for McNamara and the operators of Sierra Orchards. For example, a heatwave in the middle of the growing season can result in darker, less desirable walnuts. Heavy rains in the middle of harvest means that tree shakers and other machines can't go out in the fields. "You can’t change the weather, but can prepare for it," McNamara said.
Equipment maintenance: Large scale farming involves a lot of equipment, and machinery upkeep can be a challenge. Sierra Orchards is currently moving to a new irrigation system for the trees, and the team spends much of their day managing the migration to avoid disrupting tree health.
Quality control: Removing defective walnuts and drying walnuts to exactly 8% moisture has a big impact on the farm's revenue because quality and weight determine the price per edible yield. Sierra Orchards invests in technologies and processes to remove defective nuts before sending the harvest to the processor.
Word of mouth is the biggest source of discovery for new software. For example, McNamara discovered Ceras through another farmer, who was a close friend. The other farmer mentioned that the technology was valuable for farms in Israel, so McNamara decided to give it a try for Sierra Orchards.
Harvest log: Around the time of harvest, McNamara keeps a complex spreadsheet to track progress. He compares the expenses like hours spent shaking, sweeping, and raking with yield for each section of the farm, records the dates that the harvest is sent for processing, and notes the quality and yield of each crate when he gets quality rubrics back from the processor.
Managing compliance and inspection: The California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) requires organic farms like Sierra Orchards to keep a record of their fertilizers, supplements, and any materials used on the trees or nuts. Throughout the year, inspectors visit the Orchards unannounced to audit the paperwork. Although he is a staunch advocate of organic farming, McNamara said that maintaining the CCOF certification is tedious and time consuming because they have to keep so many paper files and invoices on-hand.
Grading sheet platform: “Grade sheets” are quality rubrics that define the price that a grower gets for each crate of walnuts. McNamara explains that, in the fall, he will send his harvest to a walnut processor in another town. There, third-party inspectors weigh and manually evaluate a sample of nuts from each crate using a quality rubric to mark external and internal defects. McNamara gets back a stack of “report cards” and a quarterly check. Today, the process is all done on paper. Although in theory they are certified to be objective evaluators, McNamara said that, in practice, the inspectors have different standards. He keeps a sample bag for each crate that he can use to appeal the inspection, if he feels it is unfairly low.
Electricity management: Sierra Orchards is both a buyer and supplier of PG&E electricity; the property has a small solar farm that sells electricity onto the grid when there is an surplus. McNamara mentioned that the software he uses to manage the electricity and his account with PG&E has usability problems. He said that there’s opportunity to invent a better power management experience.