THE NET: NOT JUST FOR FISHERMEN ANYMORE
Building a Rural On-Ramp to the Information Highway
by Lori Pottinger
Silicon chips will never replace cow chips on the farm, but
computers--particularly on-line services--are becoming an
increasingly important tool for gathering information on farming in
general and sustainable agriculture in particular. The information
highway to the farm still looks more like Rural Route 10 than
Interstate 80, but its impact is growing as new services crop up
and more users log on.
Using one of the many agricultural resources now available
electronically, one can access information on biological farming
methods, the health effects of certain pesticides, or the latest
research on coddling moths. Many good publications are
available online, free, including Alternative Agriculture News, The
Practical Farmer, Farm Aid News and Sustainable Agriculture
Week. Specialized ag groups of all sorts have electronic "mailing
lists" covering everything from beekeeping to mushrooms.
But it's the connection to other people that makes it a real network
rather than just another source of information. The ease of using
electronic mail (called e-mail) coupled with the ability to "meet"
other users in like fields online makes it easy to share information
with people all around the world. Waiting in the virtual wings are
ag librarians ready and willing to search their CD-ROMs for
questions about topics like "water conservation and lettuce,"
entomologists who can describe the best beneficial insects to
tackle various pests, extension specialists with expertise in any
number of specialties, and other farmers eager to share tips on
"E-mailing groups are a fantastic source of information," wrote Phil
Soderman, a farmer who responded to a Farmer to Farmer inquiry
posted on the Internet. "You can listen to other peopleUs
discussions and learn, ask questions and sometimes receive
answers, contact experts and find information, and watch for
announcements of how to find or where to find info on subjects of
Farmer John Edminster has found online marketing information to
be especially rich. "I use the tradenet.com to market specialty
crops internationally. I also use the Internet to locate new patents
that require agricultural materials. Soon there will also be access
to the Farm Bureau and the California Citrus board."
Troy Bogdan, another grower, appreciates the information and the
sense of community. "I have been able to track down everything
from crop growing techniques to seed sources, from farm bill and
other government news to farmer conferences. I think it's nice to
have people of like-minded occupations to chat with."
What these farmers have discovered is that the computer can be
as powerful a farming tool as some they keep in the barn. Quieter,
too. Unlike a tractor, though, it does talk back. Subscribe to a
mailing list on trickle irrigation, for example, and your "virtual
mailbox" will soon be filled with obscure postings about turbulent
emitters and fertigation.
Computers can bring an amazing amount of information to your
fingertips--even in the middle of the night, if you so choose (there
is no such thing as business hours online). Want updated weather
information for virtually any location in the state? Agricultural
economic reports on a particular crop? A look at current research
results or upcoming projects from USDA? Technical assistance in
choosing or using new equipment? ItUs all there, and much more.
All you need is a computer, a modem and, especially at first,
There are many sources of agricultural information available via
computers, but the infamous Internet is at the heart of most of
them. Begun in the 1960s as a defense research project, it
eventually spread to the academic world as a way to connect
scientists and researchers at major universities. There are a
couple of reasons it intimidates average computer users: it makes
no pretense at being user friendly (you must become comfortable
with arcane jargon and multiple-step commands), and it's
incredibly rambling and decentralized. There is no "Internet
Headquarters," no hotline, no sales representatives to soothe you
through those first baby steps. This sprawling system of personal
and institutional computers is the Winchester Mystery House of
computer networksQa series of rooms connected by multiple
hallways and filled, by some accounts, with up to 20 million users.
"I use Internet a lot," wrote grower James Meade. "It's hard to use,
but getting better. I have received many expert responses to
questions on things like best grass mixes. Using EXNET, a bulletin
board from Iowa State University, I've gotten and downloaded
corn, soybean, oats and other yield comparisons of different
varieties and brands. On EXNET, I've also gottten the IPM
The Internet can provide access to information from the National
Agricultural Library, the USDA (including its Sustainable
Agriculture Research and Education Projects), the EPA, most
major agricultural colleges and universities, weather and
marketing services, and a number of nonprofit groups with an
interest in agriculture. There are also searchable databases with
regularly updated information covering all kinds of topics,
interactive conferences, and a long list of agricultural mailing
groups and bulletin boards.
Most individual users will access the Internet in one of two ways:
using a direct Internet provider or, even easier, through a
commercial online service such as America Online or
Compuserve. Currently, America Online, Delphi and Econet offer
the most complete Internet access short of a direct connection.
The commercial services offer their own packages of services and
information in addition to Internet access. There is a monthly fee
as well as the phone charge for connect time. Most offer e-mail,
some searchable databases on general-interest topics like travel,
health and finances, and a variety of news sources. But the bulk of
online agricultural information--including that on sustainable ag--is
found on the Internet.
Using America Online to access the Internet, for example, one
simply types in "Internet" as a keyword, which brings you to a
menu of choices, including directions for use. By clicking on
"agriculture" under the main menu, a list of 86 sites comes up,
including "Editor's Choice"--those resources that consistently offer
good information. Currently, you can access North Carolina
StateUs region-specific Agricultural Market News Database, USDA
Extension bulletins, NETVET veterinary resources, the USDA
Current Research Database, Penn StateUs PENPages, "Not Just
Cows" (an excellent guide to ag resources on the Internet), and
Econet is the only nonprofit among the services offering access to
the Internet. Its emphasis is on sustainable agriculture, and
environmental information such as forestry, wildlife, water and
many other subjects. Its Internet access is extensive and easy to
use if you don't mind a text-based way of finding information rather
than one based on icons. They also offer remarkably good phone
A final possibility for those who don't yet own a computer is to sign
on from a library or college campus, which are increasingly
offering public computer stations with Internet access.
The Learning Curve
Accessing information online is not something that everyone is
willing to tackle. "There's a lot of great information online for
farmers, but they need to have the inclination to want to use the
resource," said Jill Auburn, acting director of U.C. Sustainable
Agriculture Research and Education Program. "I think thereUs a big
role for cooperative extension and nonprofits to provide database
searches and get the information in a usable form for those people
who arenUt ready to connect."
Momentum is building to bring more farmers onto the Internet and
train them in using electronic resources. "The Internet is made to
order for rural communities," said Michele Gale-Sinex of the
University of Wisconsin at Madison. "The information highway is
being planned and laid out right now, and unless rural people get
involved in it, they may get left out."
In California, this year's Ecological Farming Conference at
Asilomar (January 25-28) will include a workshop on using
computers and accessing sustainable ag information on-line. And
of course, there are always community college courses (for
example, U.C. Davis Extension is offering a course on the Internet
this spring), a whole bookstore full of "info superhighway" books,
and the old hunt-and-peck method for the autodidacts out there.
But some feel more is needed. A midwest regional newspaper
called AGWEEK called for a national policy to electronically link
"every farm in the country" to existing databases and the Internet.
The September 19, 1994 editorial said that federal farm legislation
is big on advice and regulations but short on crucial assistance
with information management. "Good data is integral to constant
profits" it said. "The power of information is already in the hands of
those who make enormous profits at the expense of producers. It's
time producers got a good ride on the information highway, too."
Farmers aren't exactly causing a traffic jam on the electronic
highway just yet. Given the typical farm workload, coupled with the
sea of new technologies and levels of bureaucracy most farmers
swim in, itUs no wonder that few have found time to embrace this
new, seemingly complicated and mostly mysterious form of
communication. But if knowledge is power, then the InternetUs
many resources are an extremely powerful tool that should not be
SIDEBAR TO MAIN ARTICLE:
The following are just a tiny fragment of services geared to on-line
The first thing to do when driving on strange roads is to get a
roadmap. "A Guide to Agriculture on the Internet" is the "Triple A"
map of cyberspace, and a great starting point for beginners. This
100-page booklet, by Mark Campidonica, explains in plain English
how the Internet works and how to access agricultural information.
Sections include step-by-step instructions that allow you to attempt
a real Internet session; good explanations of all the jargon that
makes the Net so intimidating; how to search the Net for
information, and what each of the main ag services offer. The
Guide is available for $10 from UC SAREP; call (916) 752-8664
for more information.
Fresno State's Advanced Technology Information Network (ATI-
Net) is a bulletin board specializing in agricultural technology and
marketing news and information. Its Automated Trade Library is a
rich resource of trade leads (the list of foreign buyers of grapes
alone runs 80 pages). The service is free, and the phone charges
are local if you're near any state university. Call 209-278-4872 for
SANET-MG, an electronic mailing group, was formed four years
ago by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and is probably
the most popular conference on sustainable agriculture on the
Internet. It offers news, calendar listings and magazines, and is
also a good place to send out queries on sustainable ag topics.
Besides the mailing group, SAN also offers searchable databases
on the Internet, including research reports, a directory of
individuals and organizations willing to share expertise in
sustainable agriculture and a guide to cover crops. For a brief
information sheet, Getting Started Electronically with SAN, e-mail
Gabriel Hegyes at firstname.lastname@example.org or write him at SAN c/o
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Rm. 304,
National Agricultural Library, 10301 Baltimore Blvd., Beltsville, MD
20705. If you already have an online service and e-mail address,
you can subscribe to SANET by sending the message "Subscribe
SANET-MG" to the following address: ALMANAC@CES.NCSU.EDU.
The message goes to a machine, so should not be more elaborate.
The University of California Statewide Integrated Pest
Management Project (UC-IPM) has its own on-line information
system. To access it, you need an account (free), a personal
computer and a modem. UC IPM provides special software with
the account. A training manual ($15) is available. The system
includes databases on pest management guidelines, pesticide
use and registration information, and current weather information
(updated daily). Additonal software includes degree day utilities, a
trap data management program and expert system programs for
cotton and rice growers. Training sessions ($10), though not
required, are regularly scheduled at UC Davis, Riverside and
Kearny Ag Center in Parlier. For more information call (916) 752-
What is "FARMER TO FARMER"?
"Farmer to Farmer" is a bimonthly journal on biological farming.
The focus is primarily on sustainable agriculture in California, but
the publication has generated interest in other states as well, and
even other countries. Each issue features an in-depth farm profile
that presents the complete story of how a grower has successfully
reduced pesticide use. The publication also features practical,
"how-to" articles on such topics as cover crops, weed control,
beneficial insects, building the soil, and marketing. News about
water issues, pesticides, legislation and research complete the
picture. Financial data comparing biological and conventional
growing practices is included in each issue.
"Farmer to Farmer" is a project of Community Alliance with Family
Farmers Foundation (CAFF), a Davis-based non-profit
organization responsible for a number of good sustainable
agriculture projects, including on-farm technical assistance
program ("BIOS"), and a grassroots information-sharing network
("Lighthouse Farm Campaign'). For information on Farmer to
Farmer or CAFF, call (415) 776-8519, or e-mail us at