Hear the term "data warehouse" and you might think of reams of lifeless data tables stacked hundreds of feet high in the dank bowels of a library.

But to independent crop consultant Maggie Jones, it is one of the most exciting tools ever invented for agriculture. "I equate it to tractors, hybrid seed or biotechnology," says Jones, who works with GeoFARM, one of nine SST Information Labs.

GeoFARM, and other "virtual storage bins" like it, have emerged in the past five years to meet growers' need for a place to store all of the spatial data collected by their combine yield monitors, variable rate controllers and Global Positioning Systems. All of their information, such as hybrids planted, seed populations, chemicals and fertilizers applied, soil types, number of tillage passes and number of machinery hours can be stored and managed in one safe and secure place.

But the part that excites Jones is not so much this basic storage function as what you can do with the data once it's in there. As these warehouses grow, and more and more data get added to the pool, farmers can benchmark their data against the data collected by other farmers in similar situations to see how their yields compare. The Internet and faster computer speeds have made such sharing possible.

"So instead of just looking at something on small test plots or looking at how some product performs on one field, you can look at millions of data points in real field conditions," Jones says. "When you are trying to sort and find answers for things, statistically you are way better off if you have larger quantities of data."

The major players. The SST Information Labs are one of four major players in the data warehousing market, according to Dr. Robert Hornbaker, associate professor of ag and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, who follows this market. The other three are Ag Central On-Line, mPower3 and VantagePoint Network. "Certainly, there are local warehousing activities going on," Hornbaker says. "But these are the ones that have survived the downsizing in this site-specific management market."

All these warehouses provide the same basic services, such as data storage, processing and benchmarking against aggregated or pooled data. However, each one is coming at it from a different angle, Hornbaker says. For example, some target farmers directly with their services, whereas others work through a farmer's local input dealer or crop consultant. Here is a look at these key players and the unique features each one offers.

VantagePoint Network is a joint venture of Deere & Company, Farmland Industries and Growmark and, like mPower3, is a national Internet-based warehouse. Launched in August 1999, it was designed to create an information network connecting the farmer, the crop consultant and any other advisors with whom the farmer elects to share his crop record-keeping information.

"The feedback we received from customers over the last couple of years is that information is just as important an asset as machinery and land and other capital assets," says Dale Johnson, director of national sales for VantagePoint. "In order for the information to be useful and turn it into knowledge, you need to share it with those trusted advisors who can help you analyze it and who can come up with smarter management decisions."

Growers can work with their advisors and suppliers to collect and store information from all of their cropping activities such as planting, tillage, input applications, machinery use, crop storage and grain tracking. A grower's individual data can then be benchmarked against other farmers' data in the warehouse.

Unlike some of the other warehouses, the system does not require that you do yield monitoring, grid soil sampling or other site-specific farming activities in order to use it because all of the fields entered in VantagePoint are automatically geo-referenced at the time of upload. "VantagePoint works equally well for producers operating on a whole-field or site-specific basis," Johnson says.

What's more, like mPower3, VantagePoint allows you to trace the crop and all inputs applied from planting to processing with a feature called Grain Tracking to prove that quality standards are being met.

Other special features include: * Public land survey system: section, township, range, aerial photo of your farms and fields; * Views of soil fertility, field boundaries and yield maps; * Drawing tool, which allows you to record on an aerial photo or map all product applications made to a particular field along with its latitude and longitude; * Profitability reports by field based on your costs and expectations of revenue from that field; * Crop storage, which tells you how much grain is in each of your bins, including what's sold; * Reference data on crop-protection products, seed, machinery (and pests by this summer); * Stock marketing information, including instant quotes; * Comprehensive weather reports (field-level weather by this spring); * Ag-related news; * Market prices and commodity quotes.

Price is $19.95/month. Contact: VantagePoint Network, Dept. FIN, 2057 Vermont Dr., Fort Collins, CO 80525, 877/843-8439.

Ag Central On-Line, owned by Soilteq, a division of Ag-Chem Equipment, is an Internet-based database made up primarily of fertilizer, chemical, soil sample and yield monitor data. Its roots date back to 1996, when ag retailers and consultants were offered the opportunity to send in their "as-applied" data they had collected using Ag-Chem's Falcon variable rate controller - an on-board computer on a chemical and fertilizer application machine. "We foresaw the need to have the capability of moving data from isolated desktop computers into a centralized location," says Alan Koehler, worldwide marketing manager for Soilteq.

The warehouse was formally launched in the summer of 1998 and is provided to farmers through their local ag retailers or crop consultants. However, this spring the company will be introducing the newest version of its SGIS desktop software that will give growers greater access to their data stored at Ag Central On-Line and even allow them to perform additional analysis on their own.

Koehler claims Ag-Chem is the only company in the industry with the technology that can report the chemical and fertilizer rates that were actually applied to a field. That information can then be correlated to a farmer's yield to determine how the rates might be changed to improve yield.

Other unique features of this warehouse include: Yield upload: allows you to store yield monitor data and retrieve it when needed to perform analysis and processing. You also can filter erroneous data recorded by the yield monitor to improve the accuracy and validity of the results.

nPK calculator: calculates the nutrient levels available in the soil by determining the nutrients removed by the crop during the growing season in conjunction with nutrients added either by fertilizer/manure application or by legume/crop credits.

Data Explorer: provides consultants with unlimited access to the data stored to see what analysis has been performed on each field, performs additional analysis and prints out reports based on the customer's parameters.

Price of the warehouse is typically rolled into the service package delivered to the grower, as opposed to a separate charge. For example, the price of variable rate application of fertilizer ranges from $6 to $12/acre, which would include the processing of as-applied data on Ag Central On-Line. Contact Soilteq, Dept. FIN, 5720 Smetana Dr., Minnetonka, MN 55343, 612/945-2390.

mPower3, owned by ConAgra and launched three years ago, got its start by offering crop imagery, weather data and crop models over the Internet. "We saw that there were things you could do with the Internet in providing some of those services that you couldn't get with a typical software package," says Scott Charbo, president of mPower3. "And we really felt that the aggregate data would be of value to many of the growers."

The database consists of crop production records from farm fields across the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Farmers enter the data themselves on their personal computers, and latitude and longitude are assigned to the data once downloaded to the Web site. Growers can then generate reports or integrate the information with other data on the Web site, including:

* 68 pest models that factor in your crop, location and practices to predict which pests may be a threat to your crop at a given point in the growing season; * Four crop models, including corn, wheat, soybeans and seed corn (rice and cotton to be added this year); * Hail alert, which identifies the probability of hail damage to a field; * Regional pest alerts, which give you views of different regions rather than field by field; * Yield and crop quality images taken by an airplane equipped with a sensor and imagery-capturing equipment. The images are processed and posted on the Web site along with their latitude and longitude. They are run at one-meter resolution, meaning every pixel represents one meter on the ground. * Soil views, which allow you to classify soil zones based on soil type, water content and organic matter. These zones can then be used to help you target soil sampling.

The information can be used to track the flow of the crop, including all inputs applied, from the time it is planted in the field to the time itis delivered to ensure that contract quality standards set by some processors are being met.

Cost of the service is $50/month. Contact mPower3, Dept. FIN, Box 1286, Greeley, CO 80632, 970/356-4400.

SST Information Labs are the only major players set up on a regional rather than a national basis through nine independently owned labs. The first was launched in June 1998 by a group of independent crop consultants.

Owner SST Development Group claims that this regional outreach provides better hand-holding at the local level and improved data accuracy. The independent crop consultants or crop advisors work with farmers to enter in their production information, such as inputs applied, seed planted, soil characteristics and yield, and, similar to Ag Central On-Line, the crop advisor, not the farmer, manages the data.

Using their knowledge of the producers' geographic regions and agronomic conditions, the consultants can aggregate the data across that region to see, for example, how a certain hybrid performed on a specific soil type where climate, agronomic practices and topography are similar, says Dana Waits of SST Development Group. "This information gives producers an advantage when planning seed purchases the following planting season," she says.

Each lab offers specialized software, staff and training programs designed to process and analyze site-specific data. Two such analytic software tools are:

Yield analysis: allows users to look for relationships in pooled data between yield and any two variables, such as hybrid and soil type, to determine which hybrid performs best on one producer's field given certain conditions.

Multiyear yield analysis: calculates the variability in a field's yield over time and space. Two or more years of yield data for a field, regardless of crop planted, can be analyzed to determine, for example, which areas of the field performed above or below average over the years analyzed.

The cost varies by lab. For example, one lab charges $3.50 to $5.50/acre for a laundry list of analytic services. To find the names of the consultants who belong to the lab nearest you, contact SST Development Group Inc., Dept. FIN, 824 Country Club Rd., Stillwater, OK 74075-0918, 405/377-5334.

Should you sign on? University of Illinois' Hornbaker says farmers who are deciding whether to sign on with one of these warehouses have to consider what value they expect to get from it, part of which may be a savings in their time, and what will be the return on investment compared with what the return might be with other options.

"We now have a system that is going to be more robust than a personal computer," Hornbaker says. "Is it going to save them from having to hire someone to do the same thing within their firm or hiring a local consultant to manage their data for them? So they need to look at that trade-off and think about, Is it worth that per-acre, per-month fee to have this done by someone else?"

He expects that the majority of farmers will not want to manage their own data. "Those who don't think it is their area of management expertise will probably find they will be better off to pay someone to do it so they can spend more of their time managing the marketing, production or other areas they enjoy or have relatively more expertise in doing."

After you decide that, choosing which warehouse to use will depend on where you think you will get the most value from your data or what part of the data analysis/storage function you do not feel comfortable enough to handle.

All four of these major warehouses will be around for a while, Hornbaker believes. And he doesn't expect many new players to emerge. "I wouldn't expect to see a doubling or tripling in the number of these available," he says. "There are only so many players who can be in the business and have a product that is going to work well and make money at a low cost for the producer."

The data warehouse experts we surveyed advise that you ask these questions when shopping for a data warehouse to ensure you get the best buy:

What does your database consist of? Make sure the data being stored and services offered have value to your operation.

What will I actually get from the database? Will I get reports, the actual data or just a picture of the data?

How do you ensure the accuracy or quality of the data being entered? As a litmus test, follow up with, Are local consultants available to help with data entry in the field? How do you handle yield monitor data from different yield monitor companies? What process is used for cleaning the data? Look for a detailed response to these questions. If the company doesn't give one, it could be a red flag.

Are the interpretations of the data statistically valid? To find out, ask if the company has the tools to do statistical analysis.

When you refer to an item within the database, is it always referenced and entered in the same way? Such standardization is important to ensure the value of your data. Otherwise, it cannot be sorted correctly. Make sure a common data dictionary is used for data entry.

In what format do you store the data? Is it compatible with the system I am using?

Do I have the option of removing or transferring the data to another system?

Is the warehouse available in my area?

How much does it cost? Compare that price to the value and cost- or time-savings you hope to get out of the system.

If you grow grain under contract ask, Can your warehouse trace the crop and the inputs applied to satisfy the quality requirements of my contractor?

Who owns the data? Most of the warehouses say the person supplying the data owns that data. Where policies differ is when the data are in their aggregated form. Ask for written terms outlining ownership of the data, and make sure you fully understand those terms before agreeing with them. As a litmus test, ask, Who will profit from the sale, if any, of the aggregated data?

Are my personal data confidential? All four major warehouses we interviewed said an individual farmer's data can only be viewed by the person supplying the information. Again, where policies differ is when the data are in their aggregated form. Ask for written terms outlining both scenarios before agreeing.

What kind of backup system do you use to ensure there is a copy of the original data as well as the processed data? This is important because software versions change every few years and the original data may need to be reprocessed to work with the upgraded versions.

What kind of Internet connection and transfer speeds do you offer? The information needs to be moved fast enough to make it useful to you as a manager. To ensure the speed you need, ask for a demo version or a trial period before signing on.

Do I have the capability to transfer the data back and forth between me and my trusted advisors?

Do you offer unlimited storage?