These Net sites offer deals on ag chemicals, used equipment and seed

Steve Abel purchased his first computer last March and has used it in buying $20,000 worth of equipment. The Plum City, WI, farmer bought the computer just to check out equipment for switching from dairy to forage production. Now he's sold on the power of the Internet to obtain buying information.

Rural dairy producers like Abel are not your stereotypical Internet user. But farmers with their huge needs for seed, feed and chemicals are a group ripe for Internet shopping. Today, many agricultural companies see the market potential and are responding. A massive shopping mall geared to farmers is unfolding before our eyes on the Internet.

Farmers can now buy crop chemicals, seed, livestock and used equipment on computer phone lines. And while doing that, they can apply for a loan to pay for the new purchases. Actual loan approval should be next for an Internet capability.

If you like auctions, the Internet has those, too, for purchases from herbicide to cattle.

Nearly every major farm company has a Web site. These Web sites allow you to peer into a company's product line, sales force and any other bit of information you need before heading to a dealership or showroom.

Ag buying joins the big global trend towards Internet shopping. U.S. consumers racked up more than $5 billion in Internet sales during this past holiday season. Computer industry experts expect that number to double during the next holiday season.

Nobody has figures for agricultural sales on the Internet, but several ag Web sites selling products have seen heavy activity. It looks as if farmers fit well with online buying.

Banking on that, several new Web sites now cater to crop producers who want to buy ag chemicals, seed and equipment online. Here are a few of the latest.

Ag chemicals online. Farmers may be able to pick up deals on agricultural chemicals through a new Web site that opened for business in January. The site at www.xschem.com provides a forum for suppliers to sell excess chemicals. Prices may be discounted up to 30%, according to the owner of the Web site, XSChem, Cary, NC.

A Web site catering to the agricultural chemical industry makes sense. Between 20 and 40% of ag chemicals used in the United States are held in inventories, due to the seasonal nature of the business and the wide diversity of crops. Unloading excess inventory will improve efficiency for the suppliers. Meanwhile, farmers who need the chemicals may be able to pick up some bargains.

Buyers and sellers of the products must register to use the Web site, but identities are kept anonymous. Buyer funds are retained in a secure electronic lock box at First Union National Bank until the product is delivered. XSChem keeps track of all necessary regulatory registrations needed for the sale of the chemicals.

Each day, a list of herbicides, insecticides and other products for sale are listed on the Web site. Potential buyers post bids. The high bid wins at the end of the selling period, which is determined by the seller. A Web site fee of 2% of the winning bid is automatically deducted from the buyer's funds. If a product does not sell, the listing is free.

If you're buying on the Web site, you may chose to post your bid manually or use the Web site's XSpert bidding process. XSpert allows you to privately list your maximum bid and determine bid increments. As the bidding commences, your position is automatically increased as the bids increase, up to your maximum.

The auction goes both ways. A buyers also may post a chemical need and bid price. A seller willing to accept the price wins the sale.

XSChem arranges the delivery of the product to the buyer, who pays for the freight. When the buyer receives the product, payment is released to the seller.

Cyberspace auctioneer. A company using the services of an auctioneer plans to hold monthly auctions at its Web site to sell used farm equipment and light industrial equipment. The site (www.machinery-auction.com) is just up and running. One of the developers of the site, Rich Western, reports that the company is still working through some start-up problems. But the auction should operate the second Tuesday of every month at 10:30 a.m. CST.

Western says he and his partners got the idea for the live auction from the cattle business where live auctions are conducted via satellite. Auctioning equipment on a Web site means the auction may be conducted from anywhere in the world. And participants pay no transportation costs getting to it.

The live auction with an auctioneer appeals to many farmers. "A lot of times, people don't want to wait to see if they won the bid, and they like the interaction," Western says. Dealers list their used equipment in an on-line catalog about two weeks in advance of the auction. During the auction, the current bid is displayed. Potential buyers also may send questions to the auctioneer during the auction.

The company running the Web site, InterActive Markets, Champaign, IL, is paid a small percentage of each transaction.

Used equipment. Deere & Company recently launched a new Web site to help farmers locate used equipment. The site (www.machinefinder.com) is actually an extension of a larger Web site Deere operates for dealers to manage equipment. This area is not open to the public. But farmers can jump into the machinefinder.com area. Here, dealers list used equipment for sale. Buyers search by category, manufacturer or year. Once the buyer finds the equipment, he or she may negotiate with the seller online, or go through a local dealer.

The site attracts heavy use, according to Bill Holstun with Deere's marketing services. One machine page received 2,300 computer exposures during a recent 12-hour period.

"The Internet is still a strange entity to a lot of people," Holstun says. "But a lot more customers have computers and are Internet capable. They are not surfing the Internet but going on it to do business."

More farmers may be interested in picking up used equipment considering the current low commodity prices. Holstun says farmers tend to look for used equipment, rather than buying new. A Web site like this will help them find the best equipment for the best price.

Cyberspace loans. While farmers check out purchases on the Internet, they may also apply for loans online. Farm Credit Services (FCS) changed and expanded its Web site (www.farmcredit.com) to now include the actual application for a loan. And soon farmers will receive online approvals for the loans.

FCS has operated a Web site since 1996. Its previous site received 350,000 user hits a month. Its newly revamped site lets farmers check account balances. Soon they also will be able to make payments to operating loans online.

Seeds and equipment. A new seed company out of Urbandale, IA, is selling its products on its Web site, www.netseeds.com. The company, NetSeeds, boasts that farmers save 35% when buying through its Web site. It currently markets seed in Illinois, Iowa and eastern Nebraska.

The Oklahoma-based www.fastfinder.com will help you find new and used farm equipment. Fastfinder.com actually is a cyberspace classified advertising section. Started last year, farmers and dealers with items to sell can advertise on the Web site for a nominal fee.