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1997-08-05 14:33:01


Farming: Heavily Dependent on Computers


Geri Guidetti moderates the forum on Nonhybrid Gardening. She sent this report out in late July.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture released an interesting new study today that presents data on the extent of computer usage by American farmers. Every year in June, a nationwide survey of crop plantings, grain and livestock inventories and farm land values is conducted. This year a new question category was added: computers. Information on computer access, ownership, use for farm business and Internet access was gathered and summarized. The findings are interesting and implications for global food supply short- and long-term worth pondering, I think.

The data were broken down into four farming regions, three economic classes (land values, it appears) and then summarized for the Nation. For a total of 2.05 million farms studied, hereís what they found:

For 1.03 million farms valued at $ 1,000 - 9,999, 11 percent use computers for farm business. For 676.6 thousand farms valued at $ 10,000 - 99,000, 20 percent use computers for farm business.∑ For 346.8 thousand farms valued at $ 100,000 and over, 47 percent use computers for farm business.

Of all of these farms, 916,100 were crop farms. Twenty-four percent of the crop farmers in the study use computers for the business of raising crops. This business can range from bookkeeping, accounting ,sales and marketing functions, to seed inventories, crop data and the like. Note that the highest percentage of those using computers for business were in the higher valued farms. These, one would expect, are raising the largest quantities of food. The rest of the farms in the study were livestock farmsó1.14 million of themóand 17 percent of livestock farms used computers for the business of raising meat animals.

In a future Grain Update, I plan to write about a very promising and rapidly expanding new agricultural technology called precision farming, but it should be mentioned here. In a nutshell, it relies on sophisticated sensors and a computer in the cab of a hi-tech tractor and the relay of data gathered to and from an orbiting satellite shooting images of the Earth. The farmerís computer, data and sophisticated software allow him or her to precisely determine just where deficiencies exist in the field and to apply just enough fertilizer or soil amendments to correct them. Crop and soil assessments, weed and insect burdens and other analyses can minimize time and guesswork and maximize yields. The environment benefits as wellófrom the lower applications of weed killers and pesticides, from water conserving irrigation, etc.

Given the fact that this Update is being created on, mailed and received by computer, it is obvious that there is no anti-computer sentiment from this corner of the world. In fact, itís toughóreally toughóto think of life without it. Yet, that may be precisely what we face in the near future when the dreaded Year 2000 bug strikes. Iíve been worrying a lot lately about its potential impact on national and global food supply.

What happens if, down on the farm, the embedded computer chips and application software in those super high-tech tractors, grain combines and other sophisticated farm machinery crash on January 1, 2000? Do you think that the average farmer, however sophisticated, is fretting about finding and fixing lines of code in his machinery today? Iíll bet my money that heís worried more about the weather.

If the crops DO make it to and from the fields that year, where will the farmer sell them? Markets used to be local and regional, but now they really are global and very complex. They are dependent on international loans, payments, the electronic exchange of money. They are dependent on international banks. The global marketplace is incredibly dependent on computers. None of the governments, agencies or business entities involved in local, regional or global food production, distribution or financing has announced that they are Year 2000 compliant as far as Iíve read. If they havenít announced it, itís a sure bet that they arenít, and they are running out of time.

If the crops DO make it to market with limited chaos, will they make it to the food processors, alcohol and sweetener producers, industrial chemical manufacturers with minimal disruption? If they make it to the processors, will the food make it to each supermarket across the nation dependably? Every day?

As dependence on computers for bringing food (and water) to our tables grows, so does our vulnerability on December 31. 1999. Thatís the risk weíre taking.

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