An industry insider explains why the Worldwide Web is a vital buying tool.

According to Keith Bangasser, if you don't already have an Internet subscription, you need one. Bangasser heads up the Technical Operations (TO) department at RDI Technologies, a company that designs some of the most advanced accounting software on the market. It also is one of the few companies that claims to have a solution to the year 2000 problem, when computer programs are expected to crash as the double-zero date code rolls around.

Bangasser knows computers. And he knows how companies are using them to do their business. He'll tell you this Internet craze is just starting. Use cropped up only in the last two years, and now it is growing at a phenomenal rate. In December 1995, 5% of Farm Industry News readers had access to the Internet. By mid-year 1997, that number had increased to 15%.

A business necessity. "The Internet has been viewed as a luxury, whereas soon it will be a necessity," says Bangasser, sitting at a conference room table with a stack of printed e-mail in front of him and his TO staff standing by. Why? "Because today the Web is one-way interaction," he replies. "In the future, it will be two-way, so you can send information as well as receive it."

That, in turn, will change the way products are sold and purchased. The change has already started. For example, at www.MCI. com you can sign up to get a long-distance telephone rate of ¤0.09/min. "It's the best rate out there," Bangasser says. The only requirement is that sign-up and servicing must be done online. Another site (members.aol.com/bigweeds/ag-chemical. html) lets you buy pesticides at a discounted rate.

Being on the Internet will give you access to these kinds of deals. And if you are worried about theft, some experts say it is more secure than giving a mail-order catalog company your credit card number over the telephone.

Know your cyber limits. The Internet also will give you access to information you need to do your business, but you might have to look for it. "One of the biggest challenges will be finding the stuff you are looking for, " Bangasser says. But search engines are available that can help. Yahoo, HotBot, Lycos, Alta-Vista and Infoseek are just a few of the search engines you can use to narrow your search.

Another challenge is response time after you find the site you want. The more users who are logged on, the more time it may take for the computer to pull up the information. The busiest time is after 3:00 p.m., when schools get out.

If you have kids, you may want to buy and install software that denies them access to inappropriate Web sites. Two packages that Bangasser recommends are Cybersitter and Netnanny.

A final drawback is that the Internet ties up the phone lines, so you might need a second phone line if you use the Internet a lot.

Top ten list. But, Bangasser says, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. To convince you, he and his TO staff put their heads together to come up with 10 compelling reasons why you would benefit from using the Internet. Along with these reasons, they have listed their favorite Web sites. In no particular order, here they are.

Pesticide product and safety information. Bangasser says that two sites always have up-to-date label information on most any pesticide: www.cdms.net and www. greenbook.net. To find the product you are looking for, all you have to do is type in the brand name.

Markets. For up-to-the minute prices on everything from corn to slaughter cattle, call up the Chicago Board of Trade's site at www. cbot.com. Other good ones are the Minneapolis Grain Exchange's site at www.mgex.com and the Chicago Mercantile's site at www.cme.com. One site even gives local markets: www.ruralsolutions.com. "So if you want to know markets for west-central Minnesota, you can do that," Bangasser says. He explains that most market reports are on a 10-minute delay from the time of re-lease. For quotes on the stock exchange, check out www.nyse.com, www.nasdaq.com and quote. com.

Weather. Need to know the growing degree days so you can tell how fast your crop is maturing? Log on to www.weather.com. It is linked to the Weather Channel and provides up-to-date information on such factors as soil temperatures, drying potential, wind speeds and direction and insect degree days. Andy Youngberg at RDI recommends www.awis.com for weather. "It blows the socks off the Weather Channel for information that pertains to farmers," he says.

Education. You can even take classes on the Web, a practice called "distance education." There are a number of these sites on almost any topic you can think of. Simply go to any search engine and type in "distance education." A list of sites will appear, and you can double-click on the classes you want to take.

E-mail. This Internet feature lets you do business on line at all hours of the day or night. Use it to transfer files, make purchases and communicate with local businesses. "If you don't have time to call them during the day, you can drop them a note when you get in from the field late at night," Bangasser says.

New product and safety information. Most equipment manufacturers now have a Web page under their name that gives information about new products, complete with four-color digital pictures. Bangasser hits five sites heavily to keep up to date: www.deere.com, www.case corp.com, www.caterpillar.com, www.newholland.com and www. agcocorp.com. For a look back, www. yesterdaystractors.com/store/index.htmprovides parts, manuals and repair videotapes for most tractors made before 1970.

Newspapers and radio stations. If you can't get your favorite radio station through your AM/FM radio, tune in through the Internet. One such site is www. wcco.com. You can even read your favorite newspapers and magazines. Just go to a search engine and type in the title. (Check out Farm Industry News' Web site at www. homefarm.com.)

Sports. "Most farmers I know are into sports," Bangasser says. His all-time favorite sports site is www.nascar.com. Others are www.nfl.com, nba.com, espn.com and abcsports.com.

Site-specific agriculture practices. If you're interested in learning more about global positioning systems, geographical information software and variable rate technology, log on to www.AgOnline.com.

Government reports and documents. For speeches, reports and legislation concerning the USDA, log on to www.usda.gov. For tax information, Bangasser says that www.irs.gov. is surprisingly user friendly. "It's not as stone-cold as you think a government page would be." You can download tax forms, get answers to your tax problems and find financial statistics about companies.

Farmers are eliminating the middleman, and getting a higher price for their products, by selling through the Internet.

When a group of five west-central Minnesota farm families got together as a study group two years ago to research ways to create a direct line to consumers, none of them dreamed that a pig would someday sell for a dime or less per pound.

Now, in these leaner times, the group's efforts to market their environmentally friendly farm products through the Internet and a storefront coffeehouse seem to make more economic sense than ever.

Armchair shopping with your coffee. The two-pronged result of their efforts may offer other growers a model for how farmers with fewer acres can market their products directly to consumers. With the expertise of computer whiz Kevin Hein, of Hein, Theobald & Associates of Montevideo, MN, the group designed a Web site called prairiefare.com that is both interactive and a showcase of their individual farms and product offerings.

The second prong is Java River Coffeehouse on First Street, the refurbished main thoroughfare in the heart of Montevideo, which serves as a gathering spot as well as a pilot project storefront for organic and low-input farm produce raised on these and other farms in the area.

Just inside the front door of Java River is a computer kiosk where consumers have finger-touch connection with prairiefare.com. "You can drink cappuccino and have a sandwich and buy drug-free, range-fed chickens off the Internet all at the same time," says Patrick Moore, the leader of the group, owner of the coffeehouse and organizer for the Land Stewardship Project.

The other farmer-members of prairiefare are Jim and LeeAnn VanDerPol, of rural Clara City, who raise pasture-fed pork and lamb; Dave and Avis Swenson of Montevideo, who offer tree-ripened, reduced-spray apples and apple products; Larry and Carolyn Olson of Granite Falls, who market pasture-raised, organic chicken, pork and lamb; Craig and Joanie Murphy of Morris, who sell organically grown beef; and Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen of Montevideo, who market "naturally raised" beef cattle grown without hormones or antibiotics. The group received a ¤10,000 grant from the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research Education Program for their project.

Lose the middleman. To date, the Web site has had almost 31,000 successful "hits" since it was put online, including 1,388 user sessions. The group considers this to be a limited success. "We're not getting rich off this, but at least it is a start," says Larry Olson. "None of us expect our Web site to become our primary method of marketing products."

Craig Murphy, who has established a direct marketing link with consumers in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Fargo, sees other benefits. He says, "I've had people say that they have a sense that the way we raise our cattle is the way it should be done. Our Web site could really raise awareness of that. The Internet broadens the universe and introduces our products and way of life to people worldwide."

Personalized selling. When you connect with prairiefare.com, you find a history of each farm along with each individual farmer's farming philosophy. Pictures of the farmers and their farms are also on display. "We wanted people to connect with our farmers and their way of farming," says Moore. "One of the first things we did was purchase a digital camera, and we gave each of the farmers the camera and a questionnaire to fill out. The group then designed the individual Web site pages from that."

In the beginning, it appeared that the group's goal of creating a Web site on a budget was a nearly impossible task. Then late one night Hein, while surfing the Internet, happened upon a computer program in Great Britain. "It was perfect for what we had in mind, and it meant we didn't have to reinvent the wheel," he says. "That is what made this so doable at so low a cost, and right now it is somewhat unique."

"But," interrupts Moore, "it won't be unique for long. This will become a viable marketing tool for farmers everywhere to use. Someday we will likely see this type of marketing in small towns all over the Midwest. What we're doing in Montevideo can be done in service-center communities all through the Midwest."

He adds that the concept was never intended to reach consumers in, say, New York City. "Our target audience is actually more local, and the kiosk concept is intended as a direct link between local consumers and our farmers. This is a tool that allows these farmers to own their products further into the food chain and, consequently, to receive a higher price for their products."

Call it niche marketing, if you will - one where the niche is being created on the computer screen. "Right now there are but a handful of farmer-to-consumer Web pages," says Moore. "I feel our site is both friendly and interesting, and that the food being offered is the best anywhere around. "

Says LeeAnn VanDerPol: "Creating consumer-farmer relations is the key to our success." Pricing and ordering information is available on www.prairiefare.com, and orders can be placed via e-mail or by contacting the farms by phone or regular mail. For more information, contact Moore at 320/269-7106, or e-mail Audrey Arner at aarner@maxminn.com.