April 14, 2005

Open source MetaDot helps organic farmers grow

Author: Tina Gasperson

The Organic Valley farming cooperative had a Web site and email for its member farms, but it desperately needed a corporate-style intranet to facilitate collaboration and better communication. That's where the open source MetaDot project came in, replacing phpWebSite as the sole point of reference for Organic Valley's employees and members. Now that the organization is familiar with open source software, it's finding open source alternatives may be the answer to more software dilemmas.

George Neill, director of IT for Organic Valley, says that MetaDot's open source intranet portal software has enabled workers to operate as a community. Organic Valley is a farmer-owned cooperative headquartered in La Farge, Wisc. The cooperative represents 689 farmers in 20 states, and has 350 employees. It is growing fast, with sales that leapt from $50 million in 2002 to $156 million in 2003.

Organic Valley was using phpWebSite for collaboration, and it worked great. But, Neill says, there was increasing pressure from management to create a company intranet. "The issue was that we needed this intranet, but there was no concept of the effort involved in creating that. It's much less about the technology than it is about the content."

Neill knew that with 350 staff members in various departments, there was going to be a lot of content: forms, schedules, calendars, memos, graphics, and more. He needed a solution that would allow non-technical employees to easily create and manage all that information so that the burden didn't fall solely on the IT department. And it needed to be open source. Organic Valley runs its servers on SUSE 9 and LAMP and Neill is a fan of open source software's functionality and economy. "We're owned by a bunch of farmers," he says. "They have a hard time spending money on stuff they can't see."

As Neill evaluated different options, he was looking for out-of-the-box features; support from the community; and paid support options, a feature that provides a certain level of security for the "bean counters," as Neill puts it. Additionally, he needed a solution that would allow the IT department to design the intranet with some simple standard tools and style sheets without involving the company's graphic design department, whose time is spent on the public Web site and Organic Valley's promotional material.

MetaDot was the winner. Once Neill chose the software, he spent a big chunk of time identifying "content publishers" in the various departments and training them to identify and post relevant content. Neill likes that publishers can assign different levels of security according to the sensitivity of documents. Employees can set up their own personal pages and organize the information available to them in the way they see fit. They can even include weather forecast modules and RSS news feeds and links to external sites.

Neill said those extras contribute to the staff buy-in. Some company intranets wither on the vine because no one uses them, but the Organic Valley MetaDot intranet has been a "resounding success."

"Whenever we have an announcement of any kind, rather than attaching a Word document to an email, we now have people posting that to our intranet and sending a link.

"With the intranet, we educate our staff about the organic industry and what makes Organic Valley different. We have FAQs, human resources forms, benefits information. The marketing department formerly would post press releases to the external Web site, but the employees never saw them -- now they're on the intranet too. There's an events calendar, café menu, training information and requests, links to internal reports, accounting department procedures.

"We look at this kind of like the company's electronic bulletin board. Instead of all those little pieces of paper people tack up on a physical bulletin board, we're providing a point of reference to real material: benefits, work processes, and help systems.

"It's created a lot of internal community, much like the open source community does in terms of using the capabilities of the software."

Expanding the use of open source software

Neill likes the idea of carrying the open source theme throughout the company, but proprietary software still holds a strong position at Organic Valley, in the form of Windows desktops, SQL Server databases, and Exchange servers. Is that going to change? "I continue to watch everything that's going on," he says. "We have pushed out, in a few cases, OpenOffice.org instead of Microsoft Office, and it's as compatible as we need for most users on the desktop.

"I have been incredibly impressed by the advance of the open source world, and I firmly believe we are not far away from seeing Linux desktops that do everything most users need to be able to do," Neill says.

"As for the database, with our growth it is a challenge [to continue using proprietary software]. I have to go to the CFO and tell him we need more money to go up to an enterprise version and change our licensing model.

"We are also currently evaluating whether to go to Exchange 2003 Enterprise or Open-Xchange or some other alternative. I really don't mind paying people reasonable prices for ongoing support, but I just have a real hard time going in and telling the farmers I gotta spend $50,000 or $60,000 for an email server.

"In reality, for what we get out of it, it is probably not unreasonable. But it is sometimes hard to translate that value to how many pounds of milk they have to sell. We try to be appropriately frugal."

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