Monday, April 03, 2000

Computer reliance growing

Used to buy supplies, track crops

Enquirer contributor

        Some students attending Don Garrett's “Introduction to Computers for Farmers” class could create a simple spreadsheet. Others felt fortunate to find the right letters on the keyboard. All think that their livelihood is becoming increasingly computer-dependent.

        Mr. Garrett, an instructor for the Farm Business Planning and Analysis (FBPA) Program at Miami Valley Career Technology Center in Clayton, Ohio, spent the first hour recently increasing his students' comfort level with computers. Participants also talked about their reasons for taking the course.

        Farmers are leaning more and more on technology to make their farms efficient — from buying supplies on the Internet to keeping track of planting.

        “I plan to switch my farm and business to computer,” said Dwight Riegel, who farms 600 acres and operates his family's feed mill in New Paris, Ohio. “I need to know what does what.”

        Ken and Barb Phelps of Germantown currently have a computer but are “scared to death of it.” They hoped that Mr. Garrett's instruction would help them feel comfortable keeping their books and other records on disk instead of on paper.

        “I also foresee field use of a computer,” said Mr. Phelps, who has farmed his 70-acre spread since 1981.

        Rex Filbrun takes his laptop along when he works his 1,000-acre farm near Phillipsburg, Ohio.

        “It helps me keep track of what's planted where,” he said. “I'm getting a palm (computer) that I can use more easily.”

        Mr. Filbrun, who has used a computer for more than 10 years, attended the class to brush up on his spreadsheet and word processing skills.

        Warren County's OSU Agricultural Extension Agent said local farmers are beginning to follow Mr. Filbrun's example.

        “More and more farmers are taking advantage of what computers can do for them,” agent Greg Meyer said. “Record keeping is usually their original reason for getting in volved, so they don't have to keep all their receipts in a shoebox and pull them out at tax time. But we're doing some really interesting programs with them, too.”

        Using new Global Positioning Systems (GPS), the same technology that enables cars to reorient their lost drivers, the Extension Service can track combines out in the field, Mr. Meyer said. By attaching yield monitors to the combines, farmers can gather data showing the production of each section.

        “It lets us know if we've got some problems, such as wet spots, that reduce yield. Long term, that farmer can selectively fertilize, and selectively use pesticides and other chemicals, which saves him money and allows him to better tend his crops.“

        Mr. Meyer estimated that 5 percent to 10 percent of Warren County farmers are involved with GPS technology.

        “We have guys that would like to try it,” said the FBPA's Mr. Garrett, who also

        farms in Preble County. “But it will take a few years before the value of GPS increases. The farm economy being what it is, there's not a lot of discretionary dollars to spend on this.”

        Mr. Garrett finds his students more interested in global connections through the Internet. Like the two farmers depicted in the televised IBM ad, many area producers are intrigued with the possibilities offered by agricultural e-commerce, including cheaper supplies and greater variety.

        “They also surf agricultural sites for ag-specific news,” he said.

        But for farmers willing to trade dollars for data, the computer presents endless opportunities.

        “Ohio currently is involved in a pilot electronic identification program for beef cattle,” Mr. Meyer said, explaining that a metal tag bearing a unique number is inserted in each animal's ear. Farmers can keep computer records of each animal's growth, medical and breeding history, which can be accessed by waving an electronic wand over the number on the tag.

        “It's just like scanning groceries at the supermarket,” Mr. Meyer said. “Statewide, we've got four or five larger beef producers involved in the pilot project, but it's another one of those technologies that's coming. It allows you to make better management decisions.“

        Technology, which used to be affordable only to very large farms, is gradually becoming available for smaller spreads, and prices will continue to drop, he said.


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