RFID Helps Improve Agricultural Worker Productivity

By Claire Swedberg

An Australian greenhouse uses Tracient hardware and FieldAtWork software to monitor the productivity of laborers as they plant, raise and pick tomatoes.


A new Australian tomato grower, d’Vineripe, a joint venture of produce company Perfection Fresh, is employing RFID technology to manage staff productivity as contract laborers proceed through eight tasks to raise and ultimately pick the tomatoes in four greenhouses the size of football fields.

The system, provided by Tracient and integrated by Australian field-force automation firm FieldAtWork, enables the firm’s management to know what its 100 or more staff members are doing in the greenhouses, as well as which tasks are completed and how long they take. This, the company reports, makes the operation more efficient and affords management greater visibility into the work done on d’Vineripe’s tomato plants.

d’Vineripe maintains four 80,000-square-foot greenhouses (known as glasshouses) in Two Wells, South Australia. Within those structures, thousands of plants need to be tended to as the tomatoes grow and ripen. Between 50 and 120 employees typically work on the plants each day, performing a variety of tasks, including pruning, pollinating, deleafing, pest and disease control, and picking. The laborers are often Cambodian immigrants with limited or no English language skills, who work for a subcontractor hired by d’Vineripe.

Initially, says Anthony Evans, d’Vineripe’s financial controller, the work was managed using clipboards. Employees signed in and were assigned tasks. The details were then written down manually on paper, using estimates of the tasks performed by work teams. The company had little understanding of what was being done by each worker within a particular team, or how quickly the tasks were being completed. “They needed a simple means to track their productivity,” says Colin Rosen, FieldatWork’s founder and CEO.

Each greenhouse consists of 120 rows of tomatoes. On each row, eight tasks must be completed at different intervals. When a shift begins, a worker arrives at a workstation and presents his or her ID badge, which has a 13.56 MHz Tracient RFID transponder embedded inside it, and can be worn around that person’s neck. The badge’s unique ID number is linked to the individual laborer in FieldAtWork’s ServiceAtWork software.

As the worker is given his or her daily assignment, the greenhouse’s station manager reads an RFID tag specifically identified for the task to be conducted by that laborer—such as a tag specifically associated with deleafing—using Tracient’s Padl-R HF handheld interrogator. He then reads one more tags designated for the row or rows in which the laborer will be working, linking that individual to the task and row.

At the conclusion of the task or shift, the laborer’s tag is scanned once more, to indicate he or she is finished. The interrogator stores the time and date the tags were read, and the data is downloaded at the end of the day via a USB cable, then transmitted to the company’s back-end system, where the SeviceatWork software interprets the data and stores such information as how long it took for each laborer to perform his or her task.

Management can then compare that data against best practices for each task, to determine individual employees’ productivity. This enables the managers to address particular problems, such as training or other issues related to a specific staff member not working efficiently. The company currently utilizes approximately 2,000 tags, and hopes to improve efficiency by 10 percent to 20 percent.

According to Evans, d’Vineripe is still getting used to the new system. “Initially,” he says, “it took some time to bed down, due to the complexity of and number of scans conducted.” But with three scans required for each laborer, he notes, it is working well.

Increased productivity was not d’Vineripe’s primary focus, Evans notes. “We are a start-up organization,” he says, and still trying to gain an understanding of the workflow and the time taken for individual tasks, “so we can identify areas where significant improvement can be made. Our plans are to initially monitor the workforce, to ensure compliance to our crop-management program, and then use it to find areas where more training and development are required.”

One area of concern for the company, Evans says, has been in “getting our workers to use the system. We seem to struggle with our workforce; they have been slow in taking up usage.” Still, he reports, greater training and monitoring of the system’s usage has improved the rate at which it is used.