Farm videotex: as American as apple pie. G. Berton Latamore.
Farm Videotex: As American As Apple Pie
Microcomputers and videotex computer communications are sweeping across rural America with the speed and irresistible power of spring. Microcomputers are selling at least as quickly in rural towns as in big cities. Numerous farmoriented software houses, most run by farmers, have sprung up. Computer classes are appearing in schools throughout rural North America, and they are very popular.
In computer communications, a surprising array of farm-oriented videotex experiments ranging from very localized services to national dabatases, have appeared, and more are planned. Two have already become commercial successes.
Farmers are turning to computers and computer communications out of necessity. Today's farmer must negotiate the complexities of a world agricultural market in which his best customers may be foreign governments and a financial situation in which the costs of his necessities, including diesel fuel, equipment, and land, have increased much faster than his gross income. He is physically isolated, making exchange of news and ideas difficult. A large percentage of his net business worth is tied up in capital equipment which must be replaced periodically at current high prices and interest rates. His assets are in land, he lacks the liquid assets needed to take advantage of investment opportunities. He must pay high interest rates for the short term loans he needs each spring to gain operating capital for the growing season.
Finally, unless he is a dairy farmer he must put all his eggs in one basket. His entire year's financial success or failure depends on the commodities market on the day he sells his crop. That market is complex and volatile--in a few hours prices can change enough to make the difference between profit and loss.
The farmer has several reasons for turning to computers to help him with these problems. He tends to solve problems with machinery. When he wants to increase productivity he buys a machine to do it. A $5000 microcomputer is a small investment compared to a $50,000 combine. He is familiar with computers. The agricultural programs at the land grant colleges where many U.S. farmers are educated have been using them for 30 years, and many farmers use timesharing services offered by these institutions to do their year-end bookkeeping.
The most potent reason, however, is that computers and computer communications offer many real advantages. Videotex services can bring up-to-the-minute market quotes, world weather, mainframe ecological and financial models, even store catalogs, into his home. These services make videotex a significant new tool in his struggle for economic survival.
A variety of videotex services ranging from the local Harris Electronic News or HEN of Hutchinson, KS, to the million-page AgriStar system have appeared in the last two years to meet the needs of farmers. Most are local, designed to serve the needs of a specific agricultural community, and newspaper-owned. Several of them use TRS-80 computers and videotex terminals.
The Tandy equipment is both inexpensive and proven--advantages that are more important than technical sophistication and large memory capacity for small, experimental databases.
Harris Electronic News
HEN is typical of a class of approximately five small, rural services. A creation of the Harris Newspaper Group, which publishes 11 papers, most of them mid-western dailies, it is aimed directly at the Kansas farm community. Mike Hurd, its editor, describes the contents of HEN as being very different from the contents of a newspaper.
"News, weather and sports are readily available elsewhere,' he says. "We offer an information package for the professional in agribusiness based on commodities market reports which we update throughout the day.'
HEN carries selected U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports, which its staff enters manually into the TRS-80 Model II computer that holds its database and controls the system. It does carry some news, but even its weather reports are different from those in the newspapers or on television. Supplied by Weatherdata, Inc., of Wichita, HEN weather is designed for the farmer and includes such information as a detailed analysis of soil conditions and interpretation of weather predictions in terms of effects on crops.
On February 14 HEN launched "The Monitor,' a business and financial section of the database that carries reports on 300 stocks as well as precious metals, and currencies; commercial weather services; and expanded news and sports.
"We offer something for anyone with an interest in business or agriculture,' Hurd said.
HEN has steadily added technical abilities along with database expansions. Originally HEN was a non-interactive, preprogrammed service that could be received only on TRS-80 videotex terminals and computers. The user programmed his terminal to access the information he wanted before calling the database. When he logged on, HEN dumped the requested data into the memory of his terminal and signed off. The system did not allow the user to communicate interactively with the data-base, precluding electronic mail, banking and shopping and financial modeling.
HEN is one of the first Tandy-technology systems to upgrade to interactive service using new Tandy-supplied software. It also became accessible to non-TRS-80 computers in December. Hurd expects to add an automatic logging facility soon. This will track system use by database area, showing the staff what is popular and what is not.
"The Tandy equipment really works,' Hurd said. "Tandy gives us good support.'
So far HEN has attracted 120 subscribers and is still in the experimental stage, far from turning a profit. Interest runs high in theKansas farm community, however. When HEN staff members put on demonstrations at fairs and other public events, they inevitably draw crowds and favorable comments. They hope to get computer stores across Kansas to sell HEN subscriptions, making the service easier to subscribe to.
"The level of interest in HEN among farmers is really terrific,' Hurd said, "much higher than our circulation figures indicate.'
Not all farm videotex databases are experimental. The first, and so far only, successful North American commercial videotex systems are agricultural. One uses Tandy technology.
Instant Update is a daily electronic newsletter covering all aspects of agricultural marketing. With more than 1000 subscribers nationwide, it has one of the largest videotex circulations in North America.
The reason for this success is simple: Instant Update fills a major information need in agribusiness.
Owned by Professional Farmers of America (PFA) of Cedar Falls, IA, a publisher of market news and information, Instant Update is very selective in its contents. It lists commodities prices from the major U.S. markets including the Chicago commodities exchange and the major East, Gulf and West Coast ports. Prices are updated every 10 minutes. It carries a variety of agriculturally-oriented news reports including an Alert Page of news of special importance to farmers and a weather page. Its Washington Watch carries stories from the parent company's Washington Bureau on federal government activities affecting agribusiness.
Commodities market analyses are the heart of Instant Update, however. In recent years the agricultural markets have been very unstable. For the farmer, timing and a good market strategy are essential to economic survival. To help him formulate that strategy, Instant Update carries both fundamental (supply and demand) and technical (special indicator based) analyses. The fundamental analysis shows general, long-range marketing trends. The technical predicts specific, short range activity. Together they are valuable tools for dealing with the market.
Rex Wilmore, PFA vice president, says Instant Update is satisfied with the Radio Shack equipment in spite of its lack of graphics and other limitations. Others, however, are not.
North America's other commercial videotex network is the result of a collaboration between Canada's Manitoba Telephone System and Infomart, the Toronto-based supplier of Telidon videotex turnkey systems. Named Grassroots, it is a technically sophisticated service designed to serve Canada's agricultural heartland. Unlike the Tandy systems, which use only black-and-white alphanumeric characters, Grassroots offers high-level color graphics made with alphageometric primitives, tiny predetermined segments of lines and curves that allow fast transmission and build-up of realistic pictures. Screen generation is fast enough to give an animation effect, while pixel-addressing would slow transmission to the point where each screen would take more than a minute to build.
Grassroots was a financial success from the moment its status changed from experiment to commercial service in September 1980. Today it has more than 1000 users and is expanding beyond Manitoba into neighboring Ontario and Alberta. Infomart is negotiating with potential partners in the U.S. to bring Grassroots into this country later this year.
Grassroots achieved this success with a 20,000 page database containing a mix of high quality agribusiness and home services including several that take advantage of the full interactive capacity of the system. Professional-services include constantly updated commodities market quotes and color graphing of 10- and 40-day moving point averages and 100-day price averages.
It carries the latest farm bulletins and stock quotes from the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Its weather service, provided by World Weather Watch of Quebec, has earned a reputation for accuracy by being right when the local radio and television forecasters were wrong. World Weather Watch provides separate forecasts for areas as small as 50 square miles and summary reports for the wheat-growing regions of Russia and Argentina so the Canadian farmer can get some idea of what to expect from his competition.
For the home, Grassroots includes games, educational programs, restaurant reviews and teleshopping from an electronic catalog supplied by Hudson's Bay Co., Canada's largest retail chain. This catalog takes advantage of Telidon's graphics to provide full product illustrations. It has an electronic order from that allows the user to order merchandise on line and charge it on his Hudson's Bay charge card.
Grassroots also offers a popular electronic mail service and carries the Canadian Press wire service.
Infomart's experience with Grassroots is standing the company in good stead in California, where it is working with the Bakersfield Californian to create a videotex database to serve the prosperous farmers of the San Joaquin Valley. Known as America's vegetable basket, the region offers a unique challenge. Here almonds grow alongside cabbages, and farmers often plant and harvest two different crops in the same field in a year. Such diversity in a small area creates serious ecological concerns. A fertilizer or pesticide that is beneficial to one crop may be dangerous to the crop next door or the next crop planted in that field. Even water must be allocated with one eye on the next field over.
The Californian's videotex subsidiary, Viewcom, plans to meet the information needs of this agricultural community with a database divided equally between farm management and agricultural information. The service, tentatively scheduled to go on line in the first quarter of 1984, will carry listings from the Comdex, New York, Chicago Board of Trade, Mercantile and Mid-American markets. Like Grassroots, it will carry an extensive weather service. It will also carry detailed crop information.
Telidon's graphics capability will be used sparingly and only where it will provide extra information. For instance, Union Carbide has tested a tutorial with graphics showing the relationships among root depth, plant height and depth of water in furrows beside the plant. Graphics will be used with text on the same page rather than on separate full graphics pages. Where graphics are not necessary, such as in the news section, they will be limited to borders.
The most ambitious farm videotex program in North America in terms of data-base size, is a national system that started commercial operation in November 1982. With 30,000 continuously updated pages on line and a growing database expected to top two million pages by year's end, this system, called AgriStar, should become the most complete database in agribusiness. Size is only part of the difference, however.
Created by AgriData Resources, Inc., Milwaukee-based publisher of Farm Futures magazine and several daily, weekly and monthly farm business publications, it is fully interactive, designed to serve a full range of professional farm needs from market reports to electronic mail.
"AgriStar is the only commercial online database of national scope in America,' says Richard W. Weening, AgriData president. "It is designed to function as a utility, allowing the farmer to get what he wants when he wants it.'
AgriStar can be divided into three sections. A large portion of the database is devoted to continuously updated news pages. This electronic newspaper includes reports of events of importance to the farm community, a full set of market quotes, and graphs of moving point averages, volumes and opening and closing prices.
This news and interpretation is backed up by a large volume of background material including fact sheets on fertilizers and pesticides and USDA reports. AgriStar is negotiating with the USDA and Bureau of the Census to receive all their public reports electronically directly from the agencies' databases.
AgriStar also offers a library of micro-computer programs that can be downloaded. These include programs to automate such agribusiness functions as stock management, loan analysis, and book-keeping.
"AgriStar is a basic information management tool design to meet modern farm business needs,' Weening said. "Today farmers have to adopt the technology of business to survive.
Videotex services are definitely a part of the future of commercial farming. While the exact service mix and best system technology may still be subject to debate, few question that tomorrow's farmer, whether his product is beef or roses, will need videotex. This new communications technology, however, may do much more than provide information. It will give the farmer a fast, convenient communications medium that will allow him to reach others with similar interests regardless of the distances involved.
Special interest groups using electronic mail facilities similar to those already popular on such urban-oriented services as CompuServe and The Source will allow farmers to discuss issues of common interest and formulate common courses of action.
On a more basic level, videotex will allow farm family members to meet others who may live hundreds of miles away but who have much in common with them. It can provide a new social outlet for these physically isolated people. Yet because it is always under the user's control, it will not intrude on the individual's privacy. Videotex may well end the farmer's isolation and turn the North American farm belt into a series of interlocking electronic villages that will provide a model for the society of the future.
Photo: Canada's Grassroots systems mixes agribusiness with home services.
Photo: A farmer uses AgriStar to check commodity prices.