Reforesting System Takes Root

Case Study: Webster Forest Nursery finds technologies to help it plot and plant trees with wireless data entry and an inventory tracking system.

After 48 years of growing seedlings to help reforest lands depleted by logging, the Webster Forest Nursery, in Olympia, Wash., has acquired a wealth of knowledge about the best ways to grow trees that will thrive in the wild.

In fact, many of the trees that tower in the Cascade Mountains or on the coastal cliffs in the Pacific Northwest have roots in the Webster Nursery, which gathers seeds from around the state and operates as a sort of tree factory that produces 8 million to 10 million seedlings a year. The nursery gives the utmost attention to the needs of different plant species, their regions of origin and the early-life care required to help them endure for generations.

To an outside observer, all of the Webster Nurserys young trees might look the same. But the nurserys 18-person staff works hard to collect distinguishing data on every last one of them. Its no use planting a Douglas fir seedling that came from a tree on Mount St. Helens on coastal land at sea level, for example, since the DNA of the tree would not be suited to that environment.

To avoid that sort of problem, the staff of the Webster Nursery—which is operated by Washingtons State Department of Natural Resources—has to keep extensive records on all its millions of seedlings, categorizing them not just by the 42 different species it grows but by additional details such as seed zone and elevation of origin.

"We have to keep everything genetically consistent," explains Tim Crockett, a longtime manager at the nursery. "Its not only inventory that we track but [also] all the reforestation information. We need to track seedlings from the time the seed is extracted to the time the plant is reforested."

That tracking is now done through a sophisticated system that includes wireless devices that give workers in the field direct access to the tracking system. But despite this current efficiency, the Webster Nursery for years operated as a very low-tech operation, where employees spent most of their time outside and kept records—somewhat haphazardly—on paper, almost as an afterthought. It simply did not have the technology in place to help manage vital records on the seedlings.

Crockett recalls that seedling information and plant orders were typically written down on a clipboard, transferred to index cards and kept in the desk drawer of an office manager, who maintained a system that resembled an old-fashioned library card catalog.

The most obvious problem with that system was that it was impossible to get an accurate count of plants spread across the nurserys 276 acres and 30,000 square feet of greenhouse space. The best that workers could do was to make estimates based on square footage.

Beyond that, however, the paper-based inventory tracking system was full of errors, created by workers who failed to update tracking data or misread other workers handwriting. Those errors often led to overwatering, underwatering and inaccurate plant identities that resulted in mature seedlings being transferred to inappropriate environments.

Today, any technology consultant looking at the Webster Nursery would immediately see an operation ideally suited for wireless technology that lets workers enter data in real time, from the field. But in 1996, when one of the nurserys longtime managers retired and Crockett first saw an opportunity to introduce automation, wireless technology was not very widespread.

Although the paper-based Webster Nursery eventually became an early adopter of the handheld inventory tracking technology that is so common today, 10 years ago it had a hard time finding any technology that would suit its purposes.

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"At the time, there was not a lot of stuff available off the shelf," recalls Crockett, who said the nursery reviewed many technologies before it realized it would be best served working with an IT consultant to help it put together a customized solution. The nursery hired Rudeen & Associates, a small company also based in Olympia, to help articulate its needs.

One year later, Rudeen had installed a basic inventory tracking system called RIMS (Reforestation Information Management System) consisting of an Oracle Version 8 database and a group of Handheld Systems rugged Husky handheld computers, which were linked to the database and the PCs in the nursery office. Rudeen worked with consultant Logicalis, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to build the underlying applications to connect the hardware.

The inventory tracking system was an immediate success upon its introduction in 1997, and it continues to function well a decade later. Today, the Webster Nursery still tracks inventories with the same solution and continues to work with Rudeen to enhance the technology and incorporate more advanced features such as mapping to track its seedling population.

Diane Rudeen recalls that, when she first joined the project in 1996, the Webster Nursery had reached a point where all the failings of its sloppy paper-based inventory tracking were starting to catch up with it.

"The demands on the staff had become out of control, and the nursery had produced an internal document estimating that employees workloads would increase by 33 percent unless the inventory tracking was automated," Rudeen recalls. "There was one person in the nursery office who kept all the records on paper and knew where to find everything, but she was about to retire."

John Trobaugh, who serves as Webster Nurserys program manager, was not at the nursery at the time of the initial automation but said the solution has lasted for 10 years and has easily lent itself to simple upgrades.

Trobaugh said he continues to work with Rudeen to fine-tune the system and finds that the investments in technology, which have totaled about $750,000 since 1996, always produce results in the field. Most recently, in October 2006, the nursery incorporated all its sales data into RIMS. Having that data in one place has made it easier to track the nurserys performance and to project future revenues, said Trobaugh.

Moreover, because there is now less error in the data attached to its plants, Trobaugh said that when it sells its seedlings they are more likely to be planted in the appropriate location, and more likely to take root and fulfill their purpose of reforestation. The automated inventory tracking also has freed up staff at Webster Nursery to expand its operation by adding more greenhouses for young seedlings, Trobaugh said.

Andrea Pettis is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Case File: Webster Forest Nursery, Olympia, Wash.

  • Organizational snapshot: A major nursery leading reforestation efforts that grows millions of seedlings and tracks them by species, region and altitude
  • Business need: The nursery is run by a small team of 18 workers and has no IT staff on-site. It began seeking a technology that would let workers record field data
  • Technology partners: IT consultant Rudeen & Associates, also of Olympia; Oracle, of Redwood Shores, Calif.; and Handheld Systems, of Portland, Ore.
  • Recommended solution: Applications connecting the new technology to the nurserys desktop computers were built by Logicalis Group, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
  • Project timeline: Initial installation took about a year, but Webster is currently working on incorporating a system to analyze employee performance

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