If you don't have high-speed Internet, it may be hard to understand what all the fuss is about.
Most readers of Farm Industry News may be in exactly that position, according to a recent Farm Industry News survey. Although 23% of readers have a high-speed connection, most readers either have a dial-up Internet connection (32% in our survey) or don't have an Internet connection at all (45%). In most cases in which readers say they are not connected to the Internet, it's because they don't own a computer. (See “Ready to speed?” November 2006, page 10.)
Marketers will tell you that a high-speed connection (also sometimes referred to as broadband) is 10 times faster than a dial-up connection, or 50 times faster, or even faster than that. But is a high-speed Internet connection a useful tool for the farm? And does a high-speed connection provide more value than a dial-up one?
To answer those questions, we asked three farmers who are high-speed Internet veterans to explain in detail how they use the Internet to help them manage their farms. To a person, they say the Internet has become a critical tool in their operations that easily returns the cost of a high-speed connection, and then some.
Each of them began using the Internet with a dial-up connection about 10 years ago. Around 2000 or 2001, each migrated to a high-speed connection. They say that the value they extract from the Internet increased dramatically with their high-speed connections. Here are their stories.
A coffee shop for any interest
REASONS TO SPEED
Information forums (such as Ag Talk)
Farm Service Agency business
Market and input research
Price: $50/month for high-speedsatellite-based Internet
For Bryant Knoerzer, high-speed Internet is a virtual coffee shop that enables him to exchange ideas with growers with similar interests in precision agriculture, mapping software, computers and more. It also is a tool that helps him manage his cash flow, stay abreast of the weather, research input purchases and handle business with the Farm Service Agency (FSA).
Knoerzer, who farms near Elwood in south-central Nebraska, regularly visits online agricultural forums on precision agriculture and other topics. The forums allow him to learn from growers from around the country and around the world.
“Forums help keep me up to speed on what other people are doing,” he says. “In some cases, there are no dealers or farmers in the immediate area to answer these questions. I am trying to educate myself. It keeps me abreast of technology.”
Knoerzer says, overall, the Internet is critical to his success as a farmer. A dial-up connection is a major barrier to using the tools and information available online, he adds. “With dial-up, if I wanted to check the weather radar, I really couldn't see the loop move,” he says. “I didn't do more than the bare essentials. I could search for things, but it was slow and painful. You are more likely to look for things if you can move right along.
“I think there probably already is a competitive disadvantage to not using the Internet in your business,” he adds. “Every day, there are more services available online. I have seen it with banking and the Farm Service Agency. Everything has a www.”
Knoerzer estimates he spends 30 minutes to an hour each day writing and reading e-mails and conducting other farm-related business via the Internet. Here are his top uses of the Internet.
“The main forum I follow is Precision Talk,” he says. “I visit it once or twice a week. I also have been following the Computer Talk forum. I pick up useful information — just little things, like how different technology or software works or doesn't work. It keeps me up to speed on what other people are doing.”
Knoerzer, a member of his county FSA committee, signed up for most of his loan deficiency payments (LDPs) online last year. This year, he thinks he will sign up for the farm program online as well.
In addition to saving time by conducting FSA business online, Knoerzer says that using electronic LDPs results in a faster turnaround on payments. “The biggest difference between an eLDP and a paper form is that with an eLDP you have your money deposited directly in your account within 48 hours,” he says. Payments from paper forms can take up to 30 days. “The value of having that money right away adds up. It could pay for your Internet service for the year.”
Knoerzer occasionally pays bills online. But mostly, he uses online banking services to keep track of account and loan balances, transfer money between accounts and make loan payments. “If I want to check an account balance or make a transfer, I can do it at 3:00 in the morning or 3:00 in the afternoon. It is always there. I can find out what I need 24/7.”
Marketing and input research
Knoerzer keeps track of markets online. He also researches major purchases online. For example, three years ago, online research on a new planter tipped him off to a software change that improved its ability to split the planter. This knowledge enabled him to select a planter with the upgrade from among several look-alike planters without the upgrade on his dealer's lot.
A high-speed Internet connection also helps Knoerzer keep his computer software up to date. “If you don't have high-speed Internet, it is hard to keep your computer running well,” he says. “With some of the software upgrade service packs for Windows XP, it might take you all night to download with a dial-up connection.”
Knoerzer pays $50/month for a high-speed satellite connection offered through a local service provider. The satellite service is provided by Wild Blue. That company and Hughes Network Systems are the major providers of satellite-based high-speed Internet in the U.S.
“It's well worth the $50 a month I pay for high-speed Internet,” Knoerzer says. “I don't know if the return is five times or 10 times the cost. What is knowledge worth?”
Farming alone with high-speed help
REASONS TO SPEED
Westhope, North Dakota
Farm Service Agency business
Schoolwork and entertainment
Price: $34/month for digital subscriber line high-speed connection
For Tom Henry, who operates a large farm operation with little or no outside help, the Internet is a time-saver that helps make going it alone possible. Whether it is saving a 60-mile round trip to town to attend to business at the Farm Service Agency or a trip of several hundred miles in search of a tractor, he says the Internet helps him farm more efficiently.
“I wouldn't be without it,” says Henry, who farms near Westhope, in north-central North Dakota. “Between the Internet and the cell phone, I can save a lot of hours in a week. That's important when you farm alone.”
Because the Internet is available 24 hours/7 days a week, Henry doesn't have to tie up valuable time during the day to tend to banking, marketing, farm-program and other business chores. Although all the business he accomplishes on the Internet is technically feasible with a dial-up connection, Henry insists that the frustration of slow downloads is a major barrier.
“Anyone who has experienced high-speed Internet will give you a very different answer about how useful the Internet is than someone with a dial-up connection,” he says. “Waiting for pages to load is very frustrating. I don't think anyone who has a high-speed connection would want to go back to dial-up. I don't know how I ever got along without it.”
Henry estimates he spends 30 minutes to an hour each day on the Internet conducting farm-related business. Here are his top uses of the Internet.
E-mail and e-mail newsletters
Henry regularly uses e-mail to communicate with a variety of businesses and agricultural experts. He also receives regular e-mails and e-mail newsletters from two local elevators, county extension, marketing services, farm magazines and others.
By subscribing to these information services, some of which are free and others fee-based, he stays abreast of markets, agricultural news and local agronomic issues that could affect his crops. Importantly, the information comes to him; he doesn't have to seek it out. Because of his high-speed connection, he watches the television show U.S. Farm Report on his computer when it is convenient, instead of at 5:00 a.m. when it is broadcast by his local television station.
Henry signed up for the farm program online this year. It's also the second year he has filed eLDPs online.
“I'm saving a 60-mile drive, plus time spent waiting at the office, which can be quite a while,” he says. “It's a minimum of 1½ to 2 hours each trip.”
Henry pays many of his bills online through a free service offered by his bank. “I figure every bill you pay online you save a buck,” he says. Having real-time access to account balances helps him manage cash flow better, too.
“I shop chemical prices online, but I don't buy online,” he says. After collecting price information from agricultural retailers in his service area, he uses the information to make final buying decisions.
He stays abreast of new-equipment trends by visiting company Web sites. “The Web sites are getting to be more user friendly,” he says. “There is so much detail available, including video of machines being operated.”
Online research for a used tractor paid off big when he located a tractor 250 miles away in Canada. “I saved about $20,000 over a similar tractor in the local market,” he says.
Henry notes that many farm equipment manufacturers now have parts and operator manuals online, which provide quick access to parts numbers.
Schoolwork and entertainment
Henry and his wife Bobbie have two school-age children, who use the Internet for school projects. Several members of the family also use the Internet to download music, videos and other entertainment.
Henry pays $34/month for a digital subscriber line (DSL) high-speed connection from his local phone company, which uses the latest technology to connect customers up to 15 miles from the central office. (Most DSL connections are available only 3½ miles from the central office.) His dial-up connection cost $44/month, which included $25 for a dedicated phone line.
“I don't think you can put a dollar amount on it,” Henry says. “Just the trips I save to the FSA office pays for my Internet for the year.”
REASONS TO SPEED
Communication with experts
Price: $40/month for high-speedsatellite-based Internet
For Jeff Ryan, high-speed Internet is a critical link to experts, whose advice he seeks to help improve his farming enterprise.
It also is a communications conduit that helps him market high-quality alfalfa hay and operate a successful business collecting carcass data from livestock slaughter plants.
Ryan, who farms just outside of Cresco in northeastern Iowa, isn't shy about contacting experts from near and far. “One of the best things I have found about the Internet is it helps me get ahold of experts in any field,” he says. “Most of them have an e-mail address on their Web sites, so you can contact them.”
His board of experts includes local, regional and state extension personnel in Iowa, as well as others out of the area. “There are a ton of people I communicate with regularly who I have never met or even talked with on the telephone,” he says.
Ryan says that his use of the Internet as a business tool changed dramatically when he switched from a dial-up service to an always-on, high-speed satellite Internet connection.
“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.”
Ryan estimates he spends about an hour each day on the Internet. Here are his top uses of the Internet.
Ryan finds that, by communicating with experts via e-mail, he's able to research solutions to management problems rapidly. Earlier this season, he received an e-mail newsletter from a regional extension forage specialist about sulfur deficiencies in alfalfa. He e-mailed a digital photo of suspect alfalfa to the extension expert and quickly received a visual confirmation and advice on how to take a sample. Within a day after sending the sample to a laboratory for analysis, he had final confirmation and a plan for rectifying the deficiency. “If I had to do this on my own, I would be looking at a huge amount of time,” he says.
Ryan also uses the Internet and e-mail to speed turnaround time for providing information to customers for a business selling high-quality alfalfa hay. Dairy customers typically want a nutrient analysis and pay accordingly for top quality. By using e-mail and overnight shipping, Ryan often is able to provide nutrient information from a laboratory within 24 hours, versus about five days if he relies solely on the mail. “If I can be more responsive to customers, I am more likely to make the sale and I am more likely to get repeat business,” he says.
For initial research on a new product, Ryan relies heavily on the Internet. “I get the information I need without having to a see a pushy salesman,” he says. “A lot of product Web sites have a demonstration video; some have panoramic views of the product.”
Ryan receives e-mails from local elevators each day with commodity prices, often with charts and graphs. In addition, he receives multiple e-mail commodity market newsletters, which provide market analysis. He also keeps up on world news that can affect markets with daily e-mails from publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Ryan pays about $40/month for his high-speed satellite-based Internet connection. To keep costs low, he has opted for a 128-kilobit connection speed, which is several times faster than effective dial-up speeds but slower than many satellite, DSL and other high-speed options.
“For what it costs per month, I can easily return several times that amount in value,” Ryan says.