Buying farm inputs on the Internet saves time and money, say Internet entrepreneurs. So with today's low crop prices, why aren't more farmers jumping on the cyberspace bandwagon?
Some Web-site businessmen say dealer and local business loyalty keep farmers from using e-commerce.
Others suppose that farmers fear credit card fraud.
Still others think growers are simply waiting for those businesses to prove themselves.
And what do farmers think?
All of the above, according to recent Soybean Digest reader surveys asking if or what farmers buy over the Internet.
Our readers are barely starting to explore the world of bidding for equipment, chemicals and seed over computer lines. In fact, an early 1999 survey showed that, although nearly half the readers responding use computers on their operations, and 60% of those have Internet access, less than 18% have bought over the Internet.
And the only farm-related items they bought: power tools.
In a more recent study, readers were asked about buying ag inputs over the Internet. Of those responding, nearly half use computers. And 45% of them have Internet access. But only 6% of that group are currently buying inputs over the Internet.
The first survey also reported that 64% of respondents weren't comfortable with Internet buying.
"I think that some farmers perceived this as a kind of shtick," says Ben Zaitz, the founder of Farms.com, which sells ag chemicals and other farm-related inputs.
"They were saying, 'Who are these guys and where are they getting these chemicals?' "
But Zaitz, a farmer himself, says that a good reputation and positive coffee-shop talk have helped his Web-site business grow the last four years. His site attracts up to 30,000 visitors every month.
Besides ag chemicals, it offers feed ingredients, grain, farmland, embryos and registered and grade dairy and beef cattle. It's expanding to carry cattle video auctions via the Internet, too, Zaitz says.
Auctions are a popular method of Internet sales. A grower reviews a list of items for sale, finds something he or she wants and decides whether to bid - or how much to bid - on the product. If the farmer gets the high bid, he or she makes phone or email contact with the seller to arrange the money and product exchange.
Then there are reverse auctions, where a buyer states what he or she wants for what price and waits for sellers to make offers.
Sounds simple. And it can be, says Fulton Breen, president of XSChem.com, a new ag chemical e-commerce site.
But growers are having a hard time abandoning their old business ties, he says.
"They don't want their dealers to know about this," says Breen.
"So why switch?" many ask.
The farmers from our latest survey wrote that e-commerce saves time and money and is convenient.
That's because Internet buying can be done, in many cases, virtually anytime. Auctions, of course, are different. They have a cutoff time for bids to be in.
But if you want to buy those safety masks before spraying - and have them shipped to your door - jump on the Internet at midnight if that's handy.
"Buying on the Internet fits their timetable and they can do it on their own," explains Steve Schlecht, president of the ag supply catalog company, Gempler's, which now sells via the Internet (www.Gemplers.com).
Just a few months ago, Gempler's put all 9,000 of its products online.
"Not only is it replacing business that would ordinarily come in over the phone or even the fax machine, but we're getting some new customers," says Schlecht.
One site generating a lot of farmer interest is www.Fastline Finder.com, which helps link buyers and sellers of farm and trucking equipment.
"They come to our site trying to find equipment for themselves or to find pricing on their equipment," says Amy Williams, Fast-line's Internet specialist. The site recorded nearly 135,000 visits or "hits" just in May of this year.
Its searchable database allows growers to type in what they're looking for, or want to sell, and find out going prices. The database contains all dealer advertising in any of Fastline's 29 farm and trucking publications.
Growers with something to sell can make use of Fastline's classified section (www.fastline publications.com).
Buying seed corn on the Internet is now possible from Fielder's Choice Direct (www.fielders choicedirect.com).
This 14-year-old company offers a direct-to-the-farmer marketing program. The company claims savings of 35% compared to national seed corn brand prices.
The Web site offers 24-hour online ordering, a direct link to consultants and hybrid recommendations.
One of the newest ag e-commerce sites to appear on screen is www.DirectAg.com, which unveiled at presstime. The site will offer not only seed and machinery for sale, but provide marketing and financial information and editorial news.
Also at presstime, the parent company of XSChem.com is offering another Web site (www. XSAg.com). It launched in August with seed sales and will eventually offer fertilizer, veterinary products and other ag inputs, too.
Although this new way of buying seems to be another nail in the coffin of rural enterprise, Zaitz says it doesn't have to be.
"Our marketplaces are going to have a huge impact on ag, and most will be positive.
"We do sell to dealers," Zaitz points out. And local retailers use his site to sell surplus product.
"But say there's a Vermont dairyman with 100 acres of silage who hires Agway to spray his pre-emerge herbicide," he says. "Is he going to use us to save a few bucks on chemicals? No. He needs that service, and he's not going to buy that product himself."
But an Iowan farming 4,000 acres might, he adds. "This is for the guy who wants the cheapest price and doesn't need the consulting."