HED:Small farmers adapting slowly to computers in the field.
By Danny McKenzie
You're a small farmer. You can spend $2,500 on a computer system or you can overhaul a tractor.
The computer system will allow you to keep records where they can be retrieved instantaneously, tap into the Internet for the latest in agriculture information, communicate with farm agencies and university agriculture departments.
The tractor will let you get into the field.
When U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman recently visited Memphis to meet with small farmers from around the Mid-South, he spoke about the need to embrace technology. Becoming involved in technology, Glickman says, will allow the small farmers to remain competitive with the larger farmers.
"We must carefully look at the barriers facing small farms and seek solutions to these problems," Glickman told the group.
Indeed, there is a world of information in cyberspace and a plethora of technological marvels already in the cotton, soybean and corn fields of the region.
For now, though, computers are not high on the lists of many Northeast Mississippi farmers.
"This is certainly something that we all expect will eventually be commonplace on all farms," says Mike Howell, co-operative extension agent in Lee County. "But right now, technology is still in its infancy. Right now, it's just another expenditure."
Howell and Pat Bagley, head of Mississippi State University's North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona, agree that as younger men and women enter the agriculture field so, too, will advanced technology.
"In Mississippi and across the nation, the median age of farmers is somewhere in the mid-50s," says Howell. "They're more likely to stick with what's worked for them this far.
"But the younger generation of farmers will quickly adopt computer systems into their farms. More and more of them will be going on-line for information of a specific nature, and taking advantage of the tremendous amount of software that is already out there."
Bagley concurs. "Let's face it," he says. "A lot of older folks are afraid of technology; not everyone, but a lot. It's kind of like our kids and the VCR: We can't program them but our children can in about 30 seconds.
"But with the younger people coming into farming, they'll be bringing technology with them."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an extensive presence on the Internet, as does Mississippi State University and its extension service. So do many agri-businesses and agriculture-agencies.
"Generally, though," says Howell, "farmers are still getting their information from our mail-outs and Progressive Farmer and from a lot of the companies. But I think it's our responsibility to equip ourselves with technology so we can be prepared not just for now, but for the future. Right now, we don't have anyone coming in the office and using the Internet, but one day we will and we have to be prepared."
Howell, who became the Lee County agent May 1, says his office is getting all their computers up to current standards, so that farmers can use them as well as the office staff.
"We've got to stay on the cutting edge with everybody else," he says. "As more and more technology develops farming will surely demand that farmers own a computer."
While individual computer technology is, for the present, the future, Howell says he is more excited about the biological technology already available to farmers, both large and small.
Plants and seeds have been developed that are immune to Roundup and other glyphosphates.
"Basically, if you spray Roundup on a field it kills everything," he says, but now BT (bio-technological) cotton has been engineered to where the plant produces a natural toxin that will poison bud worms when they bite into the plant. It's environmentally friendly in that there are no chemicals and it's not dangerous to people or animals.
"Small farmers can and are taking advantage of BT cotton," he said. "Monsanto developed the gene in '96, a year after the bud worms wiped out most of our cotton crop."
Howell says BT cotton is but one example of bio-engineering.
"There's a world of insects that have developed a resistance to chemicals," he says, "but now there are all sorts of plants that repel the insects. So now, we don't have to spray as many chemicals and there is more assurance that specific insects will be under control."
Both Howell and Bagley say that "precision farming" is slowly finding a hold in Mississippi agriculture. Precision farming is a technological process that combines satellite and computer information for controlling chemicals applied to fields.
The process and equipment is tremendously expensive, they both say, and that puts it out of the reach of all but perhaps the largest of farmers.
Bagley, however, says that expense has led to another form of agribusiness.
"Some of this technology will always be almost prohibitive," he says. "but some organizations are buying the equipment and leasing it to small farmers.
"Technology is like everything else; it's an economy of scale. Precision farming might be effective if you've got a 10,000-acre cotton field but if you're farming 100 acres of cotton you probably couldn't stand it.
"But some organizations are buying the equipment and leasing it to small farmers and that way they can use it as they need it. I would imagine more and more agencies might do the same thing. Big farms can buy their own equipment, but the small farmers will have to depend on leasing it. That will be the only way they can afford it."
Howell says he is intrigued by where the age of technology is taking not only agriculture, but society as well. And he says he wonders if we're becoming too dependent on technology.
"The Internet is a wonderful place," he says, grinning, "but it sure can't beat a home-grown tomato sandwich."