Early in the morning, in the middle of the day and oftentimes late at night, Jeff Ryan makes a short trip to his farm office, where he jumps on the information superhighway to save time, make money and cut down on trips to town.

The much ballyhooed information superhighway — also known as the Internet — delivers all that and more, says Ryan, who farms just outside of Cresco, in northeastern Iowa.

In the hour or so each day he spends on the Internet, it connects him to crop and livestock experts (often via e-mail) and the latest market information. It also helps him conduct successful businesses selling high-quality alfalfa hay and collecting carcass data from livestock slaughter plants.

It saves trips to the bank and to the Farm Service Agency, and it occasionally prevents the wild goose chase for farm equipment parts, like the time he needed a hard-to-describe tractor part.

“I took a picture and e-mailed it to the dealer,” recalls Ryan, who farms with his brother, Roger, in a business called Two Guys Farming, Inc. “I spent maybe eight minutes and I had an answer without leaving home. I didn't just save time, I got results besides.”

Highly useful

Ryan got his feet wet with the Internet about 10 years ago. But his use of the Internet as a business tool didn't take off until 2001, when he switched from a dial-up service to an always-on, high-speed satellite Internet connection.

The higher speed, and the fact that it is always on, has encouraged him to use the Internet more extensively. “An always-on connection opens up everything,” he says. Higher connection speeds reduce frustration common with dial-up connections, he adds.

“Before, I was choosey about where I would go on the Internet and what information I would attempt to get. I just wouldn't go to sites with too many graphics. They would take forever to load, and invariably I would lose the connection and I would have to start over, all at a snail's pace.

“In comparison to a high-speed connection, a dial-up connection seems like a dirt road after a spring thaw,” he says.

Low use with dial-up

Surveys show that a majority of farmers with Internet access are stuck on this muddy dirt road. Although technically they are able to access the Internet, the reality for most is that their use of the Internet, including e-mail, is minimal.

Our recent survey of Farm Industry News readers, for example, reveals that 58% of the respondents with Internet access have dial-up connections. Meanwhile, 42% have high-speed connections via satellite, DSL, wireless or cable. (See “Ready to speed?” page 10, for details.)

Like Ryan's experience with dial-up connections, in general, dial-up users restrict their use because of the frustrations of slow dial-up connections. Members of households with dial-up connections are on the Internet only 8.2 hrs. a week compared to 14.7 hrs. for those with broadband, according to a Minnesota survey released in January 2006.

“What farmers really get is more impact out of the Internet, so they use it more,” says Kip Pendleton, president and co-CEO of Agristar Global Networks, which markets a satellite-based broadband service to agricultural producers in 48 states. “Our customers tell us that when they had a dial-up connection, they were online seven times a week. They tell us they are online 34 times a week with their high-speed connection.”

The leap to speed

If the Internet is such a useful business tool, why aren't more farmers using high-speed connections to capture more of its value?

The reasons are complex and include the perception that high-speed connections aren't available. For example, in the Farm Industry News reader survey, a majority of respondents with dial-up connections indicated that lack of availability is an important reason for not having a high-speed Internet connection.

This flies in the face of reality. Satellite-based high-speed Internet connections are available to anybody with a clear view of the southern sky — which is practically everywhere. Many farmers also can get a high-speed connection from providers offering telephone-line-based DSL (digital subscriber line), radio-based and cable options.

Ryan speculates that many farmers remain with dial-up connections because of what is essentially a chicken-and-egg experience with the Internet.

“I think that a lot of farmers aren't aware of what is available and what the potential is, but they can't discover this because of their frustrating experience with dial-up connections,” he says. “Until you realize what is out there, you don't know what you are missing.”

WOULD YOU FARM WITHOUT A TELEPHONE?

Of course not. And someday you will say the same about high-speed Internet. Eventually, farm businesses will discover the extraordinary utility of the high-speed Internet world, just like other businesses have.

But until farmers are willing to pay more for a high-speed Internet connection than what they pay for their dial-up service, they will lag behind other businesses in this digital arena. Because regardless of what farmers think, high-speed and always-on Internet is available to nearly every farmer and will enhance their daily lives.

If you don't believe this, read our series of articles designed to help you understand the potential of high-speed Internet and then purchase the service that fits your farm's needs. The series starts this month and will continue through the winter, a perfect time to get wired into the Internet.