Like most farmers these days, Chuck Myers is a busy man. When he's doing fieldwork and needs to know current grain prices, he doesn't have time to make a trip back to his office.

“When I'm busy in the field from dawn till dusk and beyond, that DTN screen in the office doesn't do me much good,” he says.

Enter the DTN Rover. This service gives instant access to daily agricultural news, market quotes and weather forecasts in your truck, combine or tractor. The Rover downloads information via cellular phone into a Palm Pilot.

To see how the Rover performs in field conditions, we asked Myers, a Team FIN member from Lyons, NE, to test it earlier this spring. Despite some difficulties, Myers believes the Rover has potential.

“You can get important information in the field, where your time can be worth hundreds of dollars an hour,” he says.

Starting out

DTN sent Myers a Rover package that included a color Palm Pilot IIIc, a Tellular Converter (plugs between the cell phone hand set and base), a Palm modem, a notebook-size carrying case, a Palm cradle for recharging and hooking up to a computer, a 9v battery charger and batteries.

Myers then entered his zip code, which the Rover uses to download local weather and cash prices. He also chose the commodity and stock prices he wanted.

Gremlins

As Myers tinkered with the Rover, he observed several bugs in the system. Downloading cash prices at multiple sites sapped time and patience and took a toll on Myers' cell phone bill. To cut phone time, Myers downloaded just local corn and soybean cash prices, the local weather forecast and news. These downloads took just two to six minutes to complete.

Myers says that the Rover can be awkward to use inside the tractor cab because use requires two hands: one to hold the hardware and the other to operate it. “This was an inconvenience if I was operating the tractor while the Rover downloaded information,” Myers says. “I think some sort of bracket or pedestal would be very helpful.” DTN officials currently are searching for such a bracket.

Myers adds that the Palm color screen was difficult to view. “The brightness of the screen is adjustable, but out in the field, it's just plain hard to see,” he says. “I wonder if the black-and-white screen that's available might be better to use in the field.”

Cell-bound

Myers found that strong cell phone connections are vital for successful Rover operation. Because Myers lives 20 miles from three cell phone towers in his area, he resides in the outer reception radius. Thus, his cell phone often runs on a signal of one-half to two-thirds strength.

That's sufficient for cell phone conversation. However, the weak signal caused nearly one-half of his attempted DTN connections to fail. Of the successful connections, another 50% failed during download. This was despite his use of a 3W bag cellular phone, which DTN officials recommend.

As digital cell phones replace analog ones, more digital towers may be built and help link farmers now having connection problems, explains Mike Moore, DTN Rover product manager.

Still a supporter

In spite of its problems, Myers believes in the Rover.

“With the current signal strength and connection problems I'm having, I can't see signing up for one now,” he says. “However, if the connection and download problems are overcome so the Rover works every time, regardless of location, I'll reconsider. The up-to-the-minute information I can access conveniently with the Rover from any location at any time is what I want for the future.”

To use the Rover software, you need a cell phone and Palm Pilot. Price: with Internet access, $19.95/month; without Internet access, $24.95/month for 100 min. or $29.95/month for 200 min. For more information, contact DTN, 9110 W. Dodge Rd., Suite 200, Omaha, NE 68114, 800/511-0095.