Accessing information is vital in the lives of these farmers.

Debbie Windecker Frankfort, NY When did you go online, and why?

We brought the Internet to the farm two years ago. I have access where I work, but we wanted to bring the information-gathering capabilities home.

What was the early experience like?

It was overwhelming. Especially doing searches because the information available is just so massive.

What advice do you have for those who are not connected?

Don't wait any longer. Once you see it it's a must-have. It's like having the world's largest library at your fingertips.

Debbie Windecker says that, without the Internet, she and her husband may never have solved one of their dairy farm's most perplexing problems.

"We had some recurring health problems in the herd that we just could not put an end to," she says. "Finally, my husband got so frustrated he got on the Internet to try and find some help. He was able to identify the problem; then he discovered that new products under evaluation in Europe were waiting for FDA approval here in the States. Because of his efforts, we were able to be first in line to use those products."

It didn't take long for the Windeckers to take full advantage of the Internet's capabilities. They use Farmbid.com's classified section for both buying and selling, purchase animal drugs and farm supplies, conduct extensive research on new products and communicate regularly with farmers in other areas to stay abreast of production technology and prices.

"Weather information is so important we put it on our home page," Windecker says, "and the Internet is invaluable for news and agricultural information because it is `right now.'"

Aside from farm business, Windecker says the Internet helps in a number of ways. She gets phone numbers - for free - without going through directory assistance, and she even found a knapsack to replace the one her child wore out.

"For consumers the Internet is great," she says. "I do a lot of Christmas shopping because I can do it on Sunday night if I want to. It's just like catalog shopping except that it's instantaneous. And by doing price comparisons you are much more aware; companies can't fool you anymore.

"There's no doubt that the Internet will become even more a part of our lives over time. When you see your child with a pacifier in her mouth and a computer mouse in her hand, that says it all."

Curtis Miller Lyons, KS When did you go online, and why?

I connected three years ago because of the insistent encouragement of my computer engineer son. He kept talking about opportunity, communication and information.

What was the early experience like?

It was overwhelming at first, but then I found some sites that helped me get comfortable.

What advice do you have for those who are not connected?

First, don't wait any longer. Second, make sure you find a good server; I've been through four different servers. One server I couldn't connect to a lot of the time. Another one constantly disconnected me while online.

Curtis Miller's introduction to e-commerce came in July, when he sold corn on CyberCrop.com, a new online grain exchange. It was an eye-opening experience.

"You can customize the listings, so I asked for bids within a 100-mile radius," Miller says. "There were 174 corn and wheat buyers and 152 soybean buyers. At first I was surprised, but now I'm used to it."

What he's still not used to is the ease of operation, the time savings and breadth of service.

"I do forward contracting and use futures and hedges in my marketing program," he says. "I lifted hedges on soybeans and replaced them in four minutes. Unbelievable. I also like that every buyer has his premium and discount scale right on the screen. Once you accept a bid, you have a printed contract within minutes.

"Short term, this online grain exchange will add to my opportunities, force local buyers to be competitive and really help with time management. Long term, it's going to help give farmers access to more distant markets and give us a lot more latitude when marketing specialty crops."

On the buyer side, Steve Sellers, owner of Sellers Feedlot in Lyons, KS, says CyberCrop.com will help him, too.

"We posted a basis bid 35 cents under December, and we specified grade, moisture and delivery date," Sellers explains. "The bid was accepted, and that was it.

"There are a number of advantages. One is time savings because you don't have to get on the phone and fax things back and forth. Another is that some middlemen will be cut out. Currently, we have to buy through brokers once local corn is gone. But with the online exchange we are exposed to a large field of grain sellers and many of them will have storage facilities. Also, I can look at other bids and know if I need to get more aggressive. There's a lot of added flexibility."

In addition to the grain exchange, Sellers uses the Internet to file EPA reports, get weather data and communicate with the Certified Angus Beef program. He also says carcass data soon will be e-mailed to him directly from the packer.

Like Sellers, Miller uses the Internet in many ways. He uses e-mail to distribute a newsletter he writes and also mines the Net for information and news. But that's not all.

"Once we got connected we bought my mother a computer, then we got one for my in-laws," Miller says. "It really helps with family communications. And when our son moved to Boston, my wife bought him a bed on the Internet. She found a Boston-area store and arranged for delivery. She also bought a fish pond on the Internet. Amazing."

Steve Webb Needham, IN When did you go online, and why?

We connected about four years ago, primarily because my wife needed the Internet. Connie is a computer consultant.

What was the early experience like?

Servers were screwy, connections weren't good, providers were slow and content was poor. It was a struggle.

What advice do you have for those who are not connected?

Get connected. Things have changed so much it's hard to believe. The best way to get started is just talk to people, read a lot, then jump in and try to locate information on an area of interest. If someone is not real comfortable with a computer, I'd recommend going to a consultant or computer dealer for advice. Get someone with a reputation on the line - and by that I don't mean the clerk at Wal-Mart.

Although Steve Webb has made online purchases, he says information and education are what the Internet is all about.

"Here's a good example," he says. "I had been on the phone checking salvage yards trying to find a set of combine grain tank extensions. Eventually I found a yard in Wisconsin that had what I wanted at a good price. When I started asking about condition, he asked for my e-mail address, took pictures of the extensions with a digital camera and sent them to me. Within an hour I was looking at beautiful pictures - of extensions that were not the style I wanted. Those pictures saved me a long day's drive to Wisconsin and back."

For business use, Webb uses the Internet to gather information, compare prices and purchase some inputs.

"Last fall I got serious about the e-commerce side of the Internet," he says. "As I went through the winter I compared chemical prices locally and on the Net. At first, after paying freight from online sites, there were no savings. But as it got closer to planting time, local supplier prices went up and the Internet prices did not. So I saved some money on my herbicide."

Despite that experience, Webb says online purchasing probably won't play a major role in his farm business. He has three major suppliers nearby and a number of major grain outlets within 90 miles. "I'm not interested in replacing those people," he says, "but I do use pricing information to keep things competitive.

"On the information side, though, Internet use will continue to expand. For me, that's the real value - to get on the Net and find good used parts and machinery. E-mail also is valuable. I had a faulty moisture detector and the manufacturer used e-mail to help me make the repair. That saved a lot of time."

Non-business use of the Internet also will keep expanding at the Webb farm. Connie's hobby is genealogy, and Webb says there's a ton of information on the Internet. For his part, Webb admits to a "mild addiction" to Ebay, which he uses to expand his collection of first-edition books.

Steve Albright Beaman, IA When did you go online, and why?

I got connected six years ago, primarily just because it was there. Now, I would be lost without it.

What was the early experience like?

There weren't many sites, and search engines really didn't turn up a lot of information. And you sure couldn't purchase anything. Today, everyone has a Web site.

What advice do you have for those who are not connected?

Get connected immediately. If you don't, you'll miss out on tremendous marketing opportunities. Either control your own destiny or hire someone to do it for you. It is essential for business today.

When asked how he uses the Internet, Steve Albright offers a laundry list of essentials: He buys and sells on the board of trade, downloads research and yield data from Iowa State University, purchases seed and chemicals, searches for equipment needs and sells used machinery.

"I even do video conferencing with my landlords," he says. "We are set up with fast-service wireless modems that transmit at 1.5 megabytes. The technology is unbelievable."

E-commerce, he says, truly simplifies his life. "It's simple to search the Net for the best deals," he says. "For example, I bought seed from NetSeeds for $50 a bag - that's half price. My first purchase was six bags planted as a yield check. I compared it with everyone else's seed and it came out on top. By using the Internet, the company is able to eliminate the sales force and the commissions that go with it."

Beyond input purchasing, though, Albright says being able to execute trades online is the Net's highlight.

"When I learned you could do futures trading, I thought, Why use the local co-op?" he says. "All you have to do is open an online account and everything is executed using e-mail. With the Internet, you can plug in points where you want to buy or sell and go fishing if you want to."

Albright uses the computer for business purposes only, and he envisions a future even more interesting than the present.

"This technology is going to continue to expand, and it's only going to get better and faster," he says. "Soon we'll have mobile units that go right on the tractor so you can be on the Internet while doing fieldwork. The Net has already changed the business side of farming, and it's a good thing."

Phil Hatfield Carlisle, IN When did you go online, and why?

We connected early this year. I had just heard so much about it I had to see for myself. Curiosity drove it.

What was the early experience like?

Frustrating. We were hooked up with America Online and it was just a joke in this area. Now we have a local provider.

What advice do you have for those who are not connected?

Don't be intimidated. Just get with it. We use it every single day for weather, e-mail, e-commerce, financial actions and news. Just do it. It's worth it.

It didn't take Phil Hatfield long to understand how much emphasis companies are putting on the Internet. He downloaded free farm record-keeping software from Zeneca and says it is great.

"The program runs `what if' scenarios based on asset allocations, then predicts profits based on that input," Hatfield says. "It has made decision making more informed. I also use the field mapping capability. I downloaded a U.S. Geological Survey satellite image for this area, put it into the field mapping section, and now I can track things like weed pressure or drainage."

For his first foray into e-commerce, Hatfield says he just stepped out on faith.

"I didn't know anyone who used the Internet for purchasing, but I started looking at the commercial sites and Powerfarm.com caught my eye; it's easy to use and that matters. So I ordered some Roundup which was priced about the same as a bulk retailer, and it was delivered to the farm in one day. Then I ordered more for my father."

Since Hatfield does not have cable or satellite service, he uses the Internet for real-time weather information. "I really like Intellicast.com," he says. "It's very fast and up-to-the-minute. I use it for spraying decisions and for planning fieldwork. I also shop for used equipment online, and next spring I'll be ordering parts from my Deere dealer."

The Hatfield family also uses the Internet for routine shopping, and since they picked up a seed corn dealership, the Internet will be the method of choice for delivering product information and invoicing customers.

E-commerce, however, is only part of the reason the Internet has found such a valuable niche in the Hatfield operation.

"I'll keep buying and browsing," Hatfield says, "but more than anything else the Internet is an information tool for research. It's very broad: You name it and it's there."