This article is from the December 2001-January 2002 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Sugar Cane Inspection Meets the Laptop

by Bruce McGovern

I’ve always known my cuñado (brother_in_law) in Cordoba was a sugar cane inspector, but except for driving by cane fields and visiting the refinery, never knew much about the business. When he discovered I had my laptop with me, he said he’d like to find a way to store all his records on a computer. After he explained what he needed, I realized the Works Spreadsheet would fill the bill. Since I knew almost nothing about spreadsheets, I had to take an hour or two to learn how to use it, so I could show him what it would do. Fortunately, Works has a really great HELP function, and you can call up the details at the side while you are doing the job.

Sunday afternoon, we sat down and started to play. He told me he has 576 producers, with land located in a small geographic area. Most are small, with a common field size of about 4 hectares, though there are a few really big farms. (In the States, we use a totally irrational system of land measurement. An acre is 210 feet on a side, or 43,560 square feet. Let’s see you explain the derivation of that dimension. The hectare is, if my memory is correct, 100 meters on a side, a decimal multiple of the meter, thus is about 2.47 acres.)

Rural Cordoba seems mostly to support cane and coffee. Cane is so valuable that all suitable flat valley land is used for cane, and the coffee mostly goes in hilly places, where it thrives. (The traditional coffee plants needed to be grown in the shade of other trees to produce good flavor. The new hybrids grow in more sun, but they don't have as good a flavor – in case you thought your taste buds were dying of old age.)

He told me all the cane land is ‘cleaned’ within a two-week period, at least nine years out of ten. So, we made a sample column for producer numbers, then one with producer’s names. I showed him how to let the spreadsheet sort the names into alphabetical order. Then, we made a column for total hectares cleaned in the first week. Then, a column for recording the second week area cleaned.

He told me he has to supply a report showing the area cleaned, at the end of the second week, even though everyone knows the entire area will usually be done in two weeks. So, he made a third column,

for total area cleaned after two weeks. And, he started typing in the manual totals of the two weeks work of cleaning.

I tried to show him how to create a column with formulas, to make the transfer automatically. He started saying, “No, no, no, no.” I began to suspect where his granddaughters got their temperament. Finally, I got a little heated myself, and told him there was no point in showing him anything if he was going to say “No” before I even got done explaining something. He finally let me go ahead. I showed him how to create a SUM formula in the top cell, then do a FILL DOWN all the way down, 650 producers, and the totals would magically appear. He decided he liked that, after all. I told him that automatic function is the reason people use spreadsheets, not just the pretty layout. And, I explained that column should be left out of the master spreadsheet, so the third column totals don’t fill during the first week. Then, after the second week, he can insert a new column, and use FILL DOWN to complete it automatically in a few seconds.

I also explained to him in the rare year when the work wasn't done in two weeks, to go in manually, delete the formula for that specific cell, and manually enter the correct total for the slow guys.

Then, he said that all cultivation is done within one week. So, we set up the next column, which can also usually be an automatic transfer of total land in use.

We ran out of time, but he said there is a lot more info he has to record. He is supposed to visit each of the 576 producers, each week, during cleaning and cultivating and harvesting. Even at seven days a week, that’s 82 average visits each day. That poor old VW Beetle must really take a hammering during cane season. Of course, being a bit cynical, and being somewhat aware of both his personality and traditional Mexican culture, I must wonder if, when he falls behind, he drives up on the mountains to the west of the city, looks across the beautiful valley of Cordoba with field glasses, and submits a written report on all 576 plots, “personally inspected,” with appropriate numbers in the boxes. Heh, heh.

Practically speaking, it probably doesn’t matter much anyway, except to satisfy corporate and governmental paperwork requirements.

Just one week of reports takes over 1700 sheets of paper, three for each plot. He turns them in, and the clerical staff inputs them all into the office computers. He said the office has 50 computers, with 50 separate printers. I think it would be fun to hear the logic behind that particular purchase decision!

He said the producers do not get paid for the tons of cane delivered, but only for the kilos of sugar that come out of the refinery.

I spoke to him of hellfire and damnation, that is, bad floppies and crashed hard disks, and what it means to realize an entire year’s records are gone in a cloud of imaginary ones and zeroes.

I also warned him he needed to design his spreadsheet in detail before he starts programming. I doubt he will bother. But, since I am not even sure he will ever get a computer, this may all be a mental exercise.