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Communications opens up farms to computers

by Hugh Maynard

Farmers and computers have been an uneasy marriage. While other sectors of the economy have been revolutionized by computerization, less than 10% of farmers own computers and still less actually use them to their fullest potential.

Computers have been sold to farmers as "wunderkind", capable of doing anything and everything at the push of a button, the farm managers best friend without ever having to think again.

On that basis, results have been disappointing. Computers are only as good as the programs they operate end the data they have to work with. Farmers quickly discovered that many computer software programs were complicated for simple management tasks, hard to operate and provided farmers with piles of print-out information they didn't really need.

Beyond the hours required to master hard and software, farmers viewed computers as time consuming, after having to input all the data required, for processing some not always appropriate analysis.

Optimistic

Computerization in agriculture has been successful, however, when applied to specific tasks - milking machines, feeders and tractors. Anything robotic in nature, where electronics can find feed, fuel or milking time to be saved, has given computerization an appropriate niche.

In addition, those who provide service to farmers - feed companies, Al technicians, production testing - have readily adapted computers to farms, providing farmers with useful records, information and analysis; in effect, farm computerization by surrogate.

However, there is still lots of room for the desk-top computer in farming and there are those who are convinced that its time will come sooner rather than later.

Beyond the world of record analysis and production management. Quebec Farmers' Association (QFA)

Executive Director Steve Gruber see's the computer as a communication and training tool that has great potential in the farm community.

With farmers stretched out across the province, often in pockets separating one English-speaking farm community from another, the costs of providing information services will become prohibitive.

Gruber has been developing the use of video as a means of capturing essential information for farmers, then using the medium as an easy-to-distribute format. Farmers can view the video in their own home, as well as in a small group where they can discuss it afterwards.

One limitation of the video format is not having direct access to a speaker or specialist to ask questions. This is where the computer comes in. Gruber has set up a computerized bulletin board (BBS) on which farmers may place their questions, have them reviewed by a specialist or other farmers, and then answered.

Basic equipment

This is all done using an ordinary PC and a modem attached to the farm's telephone line. A farmer trying to reach an advisor at an institution may have to play telephone tag for several days at considerable expense before getting hold of the person. Through the system, known as `'Farm Talk", the message can be entered and answered at the leisure of either party.

In addition, other farmer users of the system can see the questions and if they once had a similar problem, may be able to offer a solution that worked for them. The bulletin board acts as a two-way information exchange and farm information network no matter the location of the farm.

Howard Giles is a farm management specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) in Winchester. He is already a regular user of electronic mail (E-mail) with his colleagues in other regional OMAF offices. He see's the Farm Talk system as a logical extension for communicating with farmers.

"One example of our use of this type of system is the lady who called wanting to know the price farmer's received for their com, monthly for the last three years. I didn't have the answer but sent a message to Ridgetown College. By 4:30 p.m. I had a spreadsheet on my computer with all the monthly average prices since 1959!" said Giles.

He added that he was able to deliver the information by phone the next morning; if she had been connected to a bulletin board, he would have been able to deliver 30 years of corn prices without typing or photocopying a thing.

"To date, farmers BBS's have not met the challenge and capabilities that are out there. Someone has to break new ground and QFA has done that with Farm Talk,', he said.

Endless

The different information services that a system like Farm Talk can offer are numerous. 'For sale' or 'wanted to buy' messages may be left, or computer questions answered as well as general messages between farmers. No longer need a farmer come to a dead end, with the dealer either unavailable or unable to answer questions, when trying to figure something out about computers or a particular program.

Scott Templeton, of Templedale Holsteins in Howick, Quebec, purchased a computer mainly to provide a more efficient method of filing information such as herd inventory, bull and embryo contract information as well as financial records and accounting.

Since logging on to Farm Talk last year, he has been impressed with the way the program was designed, and how simple it was for a novice computer operator to understand and operate.

"Even though we are all still in the learning stages of Farm Talk, I think once more people join the system it will enable farmers to exchange ideas, discuss problems, as well as advertise in the Buy and Sell Conference," said Templeton.

As well as allowing farmers the opportunity to `pick the brains" of specialists who can reply to questions on Farm Talk, Templeton see's other positive aspects to the potential of computer communications for farmers.

"In the not too distant future, farmers will be able to link up to computers at breed association offices and milk recording agencies to further maximize the potential of their on farm computers," he said.

Service

Presently on Farm Talk there is a weather bulletin (with long range forecast) and a market price review. The QFA is currently working to obtain a wider variety and more up to-date price information which will itself be transferred by modem to the BBS computer.

The system is also adaptable so that bulk information, like updated GST regulations or new income tax rules, can be placed on the system. Farmers will be able to down-load them into their farm computer, using only a few minutes of telephone time, and then store the data for future reference.

In the not so distant future, news information will be available, as will training materials for courses and professional certification. Tractor and equipment manuals, even parts lists, are all types of information well suited for bulletin boards.

Marcel Heyligen bought a computer because of personal interest and the need of his children to become user friendly with the PC. He runs a cow-calf operation in Notre Dame-de-Stanbridge and had only taken a very basic course at college on computers. Farm Talk gave him a constructive use for the computer.

"The exchange of ideas, seeking an answer to a question or helping a fellow farmer is my view of Farm Talk, plus some good old fashioned chatting. It is also a place to learn, to buy and sell and to get the news. The bonus is that it can be done when I have time to spare, usually at night," Heyligen noted.

He believes the potential is up to the user, but he hopes to see much more use of Farm Talk, plus expanded use of the modem, to reach manufacturers, educational institutions, other computer bulletin boards, not just locally but on a national and international scale.

All the interviews for this article were carried out and collected via the Farm Talk computer bulletin board. A similar system has already been established for New Brunswick farmers through their federation of agriculture. Anyone interested in learning more about farmer BBSs can contact Steve Gruber at 514457-2010.

Copyright 1992 REAP Canada.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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