Computers as a Tool

On June 30, 2009, President Barack Obama said, “A healthy American economy depends on a prosperous rural America.” His administration as even more assertive in their rural policy documents, saying, “Modern technology is critical to the expansion of business, education, and health care opportunities in rural areas and the competitiveness of the nation’s small towns and rural communities.” And they backed up their concerns with over $7.2 billion in stimulus funds to expand broadband Internet access to rural communities and even farmers.

Computers and the Internet have already proven their use to farmers and rural residents. As the chart of adoption of new technology shows, rural residents weren’t far behind their urban cousins in the adoption of computers and the Internet.

But as broadband connections became almost ubiquitous in the cities, rural areas ran up against the technical limitations that follow from living so far from town. No one had the money to stretch fiber optic, cable TV or ISDN to farms that might have only a few people per square mile. Satellite systems were incredibly slow.

New broadband wireless systems – known as fourth-generation WIMAX – were developed in the late 2000s, but they were still waiting to be deployed.

In 2008, there were 20 million rural residents who were not served by a single broadband provider. In 2009, 67 percent of urban dwellers have high speed Internet access, while only 46 percent of rural residents have broadband. Rural America is falling behind.

In the meantime, individual farmers went to extraordinary lengths to get connected. In some parts of rural America business owners in town were putting microwave radio receivers on the tops of grain elevators and farmers were paying for their own microwave transmitters to make the link from their computers to the receivers in town. From there, the farmers could connect to the world.

In other regions, farmers would drive to the parking lot of their local library, start up a laptop, steal their broadband connection and conduct business. In effect, there’s a bandwidth war going on at the Wadena, MN, public library.

“We’ve had three local businesses bouncing off of our bandwidth to operate their businesses,” says Marian Ridge, director of the Kitchigami Regional Library that administers the Wadena Library. “We have to spend a lot of time throttling them back because we barely have enough bandwidth to take care of library needs.”

Farmers found that they needed connections for a variety of very real business reasons.

  • Production records. Any business can’t really tell how it’s doing unless they keep track of the numbers. For dairy farmers, that means keeping track of how much milk each cow is producing, what’s the butterfat content and what are the prices that the local dairy is paying. For cattle feedlots, it’s tracking how many pounds of meat each animal puts on at a given input of feed and what kind of feed. Tracking inputs and outcomes are similar concerns for grain farmers, cotton farmers, vegetable farmers – all farmers – and there are systems now that will automatically correlate individual animals or parts of the field with inputs and outcomes.
  • Financial and production planning. Farming today is a highly technical, financial endeavor. In fact, farmers taught Wall Street how to write futures contracts (for better or worse). What that means is that the average farmer will sit down at his or her computer over the winter (or sooner) and plan out the next year’s operation. How much of what food or fiber do you expect to produce? What will the actual inputs cost? What price do you need to receive for the product in order to provide a reasonable profit, and do you have futures contracts in place to assure that price? How much do you expect to earn through which government programs? What about crop insurance? The list of questions can seem endless, but they have to be asked and answered so that the farmer can go to the banker and get a large operating loan for the year.
  • Research on technical issues. The Internet has become an invaluable tool to research specific issues in agriculture. For instance, if a farmer is having a problem with a specific kind of insect or weed, he’ll research the best practices for combating that problem. Land grant colleges post a host of research on their Web sites. In addition, farmers have found their versions of social media, joining discussion forums devoted to specific technical issues. Most seem to understand that a farmer who is not learning is loosing money.
  • Procurement. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Sears Catalog broke the retail isolation of America’s farmers. That’s why Sears made millions selling everything from butter churns to entire houses and out buildings in a kit. Today, the Internet has become the Sears Catalog of the 21st century. Everything from everyday items to the esoteric are available for delivery right to your farmstead even the next day.
  • The Internet as a marketing tool. More and more farmers are finding that they can make more money by adding something of value to their commodities and selling it worldwide over the Internet. Alternative markets are flourishing. But to reach those markets requires an Internet connection and rudimentary knowledge of the coding protocols to enable Web sites.

film_derr_RFarmer Heather Derr (left) of York, Nebraska, says she and her husband David got their first computer in 1979. “Back then, it was just the books and logging information,” she remembers. “Now, practically everything can be done online. I can do my FSA [Farm Service Agency, USDA] work online. I can buy and sell and put some calls [financial transactions] and all that.”

Implement dealer Jim Ermer (right) says all his business is done online, as well
. “When we started, we didn’t have a computer,” he says. “It’s changed more than the implements have changed. We do all our ordering online right now from our own computer in York. We do all our settlements with all of the manufacturers… If we spit out a contract with a farmer, we send it electronically and next day or two we get our remittance back electrically. It’s changed tremendously.”

film_kaliff_RLike most parents, Mark Kaliff (left) realizes that his kids seem to know intuitively what it took him years to learn about the computer. “Our kids, even with our planter monitor, they can jump in and change things and set it way faster [than I can] because they grew up with that technology of that computer screen and touch screen,” Mark says. “I always laugh about when one of the kids rode with me one time, and they showed me all the things that the planter would do. And I said, ‘Before you leave, put it back the way I had it!’”film_otte_L
Troy Otte (right) says computers are taking over more and more of the mundane tasks in farming
. “They haven’t made lives any simpler in some areas, but they definitely take some of the strain off when you’re actually in the field,” Troy says. Troy actually bought the guidance system that steers the tractor to within an inch of where it’s supposed to go. “You can put bigger days in when you’re not physically having to drive and worry about it.”

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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