Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Farmers And Information Age Technology

November 18, 1996

I asked Dr. Eric Abbott of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Iowa State University several questions about farmers and the use of computers. Here’s what his research has shown.

How many farmers have computers? About 35 to 40 percent of farmers have computers. Of that group only a third have a modem with their computer. From 1980 to 1992, farmers added computers at the rate of only 1.5 percent a year - a snail’s pace. Since 1992 the use of computers has taken off. Computers have become a critical tool for management for about 40 percent of the computer owners.

When will every farmer have a computer? The current crop of farmers is 55 to 65 years old. Abbott estimates that about 40 to 50 percent of the farmers in this age group will use computers. He believes there will be no universal adoption until farms have been passed on to the next generation. The size of the operation makes a difference on whether computers will be adopted.

How do farmers use computers? The top 15 to 20 percent of computer owners are high end, management-oriented, large scale farmers with large acreages and gross sales of $200,000 or more. The computer has changed the way they farm. They input data, map fields, control feed rations and, in various ways, use the computer as a decision-making tool.

The next 20 percent of computer owners use the computer to innovate in one main area of their business, such as record keeping or managing one enterprise. Computers make a real difference and, for this group too, the computer more than pays for itself.

A lot of specialized software for farmers was developed in the mid80s. Since then the generic programs developed by big companies are powerful enough to provide the needed power and utilities for farmers.

In the remaining 60 percent of computer owners, some high end farmers don’t make good use of the computer. Also many farmers don't farm on a large enough scale for a computer to justify the time, cost and energy to learn computer skills and to input the data. Twenty percent of this group are farming the same way as they did before they got the computer. The next 15 to 20 percent purchased a computer for their children to help them with school and for entertainment. The last 5 to 10 percent use the computer for games or it has been left behind by a son or daughter who left for college.

How do farmers use the Internet? The Internet isn’t a management tool yet, mainly because of the high cost of long distance calls to get to an Internet provider. This year in Iowa, for the first time, the Cooperative Extension Service is getting inquiries from a number of farmers asking how to access their world wide web page for on-line information.

Only 14 percent of all farmers have direct access to the Internet now. Also, farmers need fast computers and modems to download information.

A growing number of electronic magazines are also a source of management information. Print magazines segment their market. Once providers learn how to make money on the Internet, they will electronically tailor information to meet farmers' needs.

One example of this is the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper builds an audience by sending electronic information free. Then they charge $29.00 for the right to access their supplemental information. When electronic supplemental information becomes a valuable management tool Internet use will take off.

Rural phone service quality plays a role in whether "See you-see me" teleconferencing becomes a reality in rural areas. One drawback is that the Internet providers in a rural area need enough technicians to back up their system.

What about other telecommunication developments? Teletext services such DTN and sideband feeds are useful market and weather information sources for farmers. One-third of all farmers in Iowa have them. Farmers who have DTN or similar services give it a high grade as a source of management information. Cellular phones have also caught on and aid in on-farm communications.

How do farmers become computer literate? It used to be that farmers who used computers were fairly isolated and didn't trust each other's knowledge. The early adopters were way out in front of their neighbors. They turned to dealers and technical publications for information. Now there are enough computer literate neighbors in the farming community that farmers can now turn to each other for computer-related information and problem-solving.

Small business owners in rural communities are starting to share information and training. They are a parallel group to the farmers and are in much the same stage of development. Some of them are being forced into the computer age by links with wholesalers and national chains. Also, some businesses are moving to electronic verification or control at the point of service. Banks, in some cases, are starting to require farmers to bring in their financial information on computer disks.

Abbott makes the point that learning computer skills in an off-farm setting does not mean that the husband or wife transfers this skill to their on-farm spouse. As in other homes, everyone takes their turn at the computer. Evidently using the computer is an individualized experience that they do not share easily in the family.