Issue 4
December 1995

Agriculture on the Internet

By: Tracy Sayler






Prairie Grains is the
official publication of
the Minnesota
Association of
Wheat Growers,
North Dakota Grain
Growers Association,
South Dakota Wheat,
Inc., and the
Minnesota Barley
Growers Association.

It started as a national security measure and then became a research and academic network. Now, the internet is an electronic medium that is rapidly being embraced by the general public for communication, entertainment, education, and information access around the world on just about any topic imaginable.

Including agriculture, which is paving its own road on the information highway. Agricultural research from crops and cows to markets and farm policy can be found on the net. USDA, ag-related businesses, farm media, and farm organizations are on-line, as are a growing legion of farm families.

A Cold War creation

The internet was originally created in the early 1970s by the U.S. Defense Department, as a means of ensuring a workable communications system through a network of computers in the event of war.

Any part of the internet could suffer an outage, but computers could still communicate with one another by using any open alternative route over a special telecommunications system in the network.

Research institutes and universities gradually became connected to the network, and the internet evolved into a means of transferring research and educational information.

In the early 1990s, the internet was opened up to a few large commercial sites, primarily research and engineering departments. Commercial users of the internet began to increase in 1992 as access restrictions were loosened.

Only in the last few years has the net gone public, and within the last year, it has experienced a whopping rate of adoption. The population of the internet hovered around 20 million at the beginning of 1995, an increase by 40 percent in the last year, said Netguide magazine Editor Dan Rosenbaum, in the November 1995 issue.

Other estimates put the internet growth rate at 20 percent per month, says Bruce Brorson, a University of Minnesota-Crookston internet expert.

One factor in the net’s incredible growth is the equally incredible proliferation of personal computers (PCs), more affordable and user-friendly for households than ever before. In fact, features and software needed to access the internet are already included with many PC packages sold today.

Telecommunications advancements and more telephone companies providing on-line service have also helped prod the net upsurge, although access and affordable rates are still a barrier in many rural areas.

Today, the internet is also easier to use. Nearly impenetrable commands and procedures restricted the layperson’s use of the net years ago, and virtually all information transferred was black-and-white text.

But now there is user-friendly software and systems such as the World Wide Web in place to navigate the net. The Web offers a colorful addition of graphics, images, video, animation, and sound (collectively called "multimedia") to the net. Point-and-click protocol based on hypertext, or highlighted keywords within a document, allows a net user to jump or link to other subjects and sites of information.

Internet Protocal (IP), like an electronic post office, is used to make sure information gets from one computer to another. Just as you need an address to send a letter, you have a domain name or e-mail (the "e" is for electronic) address to communicate with others on the internet.

E-mail addresses follow a certain format to help signify where the sender or receiver is from; for example, .com at the end of an address means commercial organization, .edu means educational institution, and .gov means government.

The daily volume of e-mail in the United States now is almost twice that of first class mail, says Brorson.

Huge country coffee shop

"A huge country coffee shop where farmers and ranchers exchange ideas." That’s how Successful Farming describes its "Agriculture Online" site on the internet.

SF launched its Ag Online site in May, 1995. "We went into it with a spirit of inquiry," says senior editor John Walter.

Other farm media, ag businesses, grain marketing consultants, and farm organizations have joined SF’s mix of farm news and weather available on Ag Online. "What we’re trying to do is establish a network of partners that offers complementary services," says Walter.

SF’s Ag Online has been averaging about 6,000 daily "hits" (visitors who log into a site) and had about 100,000 hits in September - numbers which are "mildly surprising," says Walter. "There are ag constituencies we serve on the net who we may not be reaching through the mother book (SF magazine)," he says.

In October, 1994, SF did a survey of its readers and found that 45 percent had computers, 25 percent had modems, and 16 percent were on-line. As fast as the information age is moving, however, Walter says those numbers now are virtually archaic; Microsoft’s introduction of Windows 95 and this next Christmas should make that even more so, he predicts.

For now, Ag Online is no moneymaker for SF, and operating it "has been more labor intensive than we thought," says Walter. "But we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think there was value to it. We have some faith in the evolution of this venture."

Cyberfarm on the silicon prairie

No one can accuse John Reifsteck of being informationally-challenged; one satellite dish mounted in his farmyard near Champaign, Ill., is devoted to farm news, markets, and weather broadcast by FarmDayta; another C-band satellite brings in cable and premium television channels.

Reifsteck is an avid internet user and in fact, has his own home page (on-line site entry-point) created as part of a "cyberfarm" project, sponsored by area business and education efforts to establish the area as a model for rural electronic communications development.

Indeed, the area in east central Illinois is sometimes referred to as the "Silicon Prairie," as the web navigation programs Mosaic and Netscape can both trace their origins to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, home to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Reifsteck’s home page contains information on his corn and soybeans operation, including production strategies and a crop progress report for the growing season.

A novelty now, the internet will be more useful to farmers down the road, he says. Farmers will be able to consult with other growers and consultants through e-mail on production and marketing topics. Soil testing results may be accessed on-line, as well as contract information at local grain elevators or financial information at banks.

"I think another real push would be if implement companies would put parts information and service manuals on-line," says Reifsteck. "The neat thing about this technology is all the possibilities for the future." l

(Sources for this article: "The World Wide Web Unleashed," by John December and Neil Randall; "Windows Internet Tour Guide," by Michael Fraase)

Copyright Prairie
Grains Magazine
December 1995