The Internet's vast storehouse of information is an incredible resource for farmers, says Chris Hausman, who raises white corn and soybeans near Pesotum, in east central Illinois. But hunting through heaps of material to find what you need is a time-consuming and often vexing job — one that can easily lead to “information overload,” he says. “It really helps to have someone sort through it all for you.”
That's the idea behind the University of Illinois' (U of I) weblog for Corn Belt farmers. The Farm Gate, at www.farmgate.uiuc.edu, summarizes and analyzes research on crop and livestock science, ag policy, ag economics and marketing. Farmers can get a wide range of reliable information in one place and also offer feedback.
The free service combines the immediacy and reach of blogging with traditional Extension outreach. “Blogger” Stu Ellis is a veteran ag journalist and educator who “cuts through the information clutter,” Hausman says, “and gets to the important stuff.”
Among farms with sales of $500,000 or more, 84% have Internet access, according to USDA.
Farmers use the Internet primarily to gather information. One example is the University of Illinois' Farm Decision Outreach Central program, or farmdoc (www.farmdoc.uiuc.edu), which publishes online farm risk management material. “I use their crop insurance decision-maker program a lot,” says Hausman, who serves on the farmdoc advisory board. He has lots of company. The farmdoc Web site gets over 3 million visits a year.
The Farm Gate grew out of a suggestion from the farmdoc advisory board. Busy farmers wanted a one-stop Web site where they could keep up on new information from the U of I and other Midwest land-grant universities.
But farmers wanted a farm management blog, says farmdoc economist Scott Irwin, who helped develop the blog. They wanted somebody to sift through all the relevant research. They wanted a changing round of topics that pertained to their immediate concerns. And they wanted practical suggestions and comments from other farmers.
The Farm Gate is different from personal blogs, which typically have a strong opinion, yet it's more than an online ag news service. Stu Ellis, writing from Decatur, IL, combs through more than 100 university and government ag Web sites. He summarizes and interprets new ideas and timely research of interest to Midwest producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cattle and hogs. Blog content has to pass the “coffee shop test,” Ellis says: “Is it something that would cause somebody at the local coffee shop to turn to you and say, ‘Did you hear about that?’”
Ellis posts Monday-Friday, picking topics according to the seasons. June posts, for example, were geared to pest management and marketing issues.
Often, Ellis translates technical material into practical terms. One post explained carbon sequestration and suggested how no-till producers might profit from selling carbon credits. He also does a weekly roundup of Midwest Extension Service bulletins. Embedded links in the text take readers to original sources, as well as related Web sites and blogs.
This kind of information transfer is something the Extension services have always done, says Gary Schnitkey, a University of Illinois ag economist, who helped create The Farm Gate. The blog is simply a new tool for informing working farmers, “an electronic county agent.”
The “blogosphere” now contains more than 70 million blogs on every imaginable subject, including agriculture. This surging medium “gives everyone his own printing press and transmitter,” Ellis says.
But does anyone read these things? A July 2006 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that 57 million Americans are blog readers — nearly 40% of adult Internet users. The interactive features of blogs are also catching on: 12% of Internet users have posted comments, according to a January 2005 Pew report.
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In its first 15 months, The Farm Gate has gotten 625,000 page requests, with 5,000-8,000 unique visitors per month, Irwin says. The blog is also being republished at www.farms.com. Readers are encouraged to weigh in on the issues, and Ellis publishes all comments that “advance the discussion.” Responses come from around the world.
One of Ellis's first posts generated heated response. On Dec. 8, 2005, he wrote about the proposed national ID program for farm animals. The piece summarized USDA's position and reported on what university livestock and marketing experts were saying about potential effects on producers. The post generated dozens of comments and enough attention to lift it to the top of a Google search on the subject.
“I was floored at the reader response,” Ellis recalls. Later that same month, he Googled “year-end farm tax planning” and was surprised to see his own blog high up on the list.
Farmers have always been interested in new ideas and methods. Now, more than ever, says Irwin, the Illinois economist, growers compete in a low-margin business, where current, reliable information can provide an edge. The Farm Gate can help farmers with that, he says. “We think this is a pioneering idea and one that will be widely replicated.”
Here's a small sample of agriculture-related news blogs:
Chat ‘n’ Chew Café:www.agry.purdue.edu/ext/corn/cafe/. Purdue University corn specialist Bob Nielsen compiles timely agronomic information.
Blogs are becoming a popular way for agricultural organizations to communicate with farm audiences, says digital media entrepreneur Cindy Zimmerman of Holts Summit, MO.
She and her husband Chuck, both longtime farm broadcasters, founded Zimmcomm New Media. They publish four ag-related blogs, including AgWired (www.agwired.com), an agribusiness news site and Domestic Fuel (www.domesticfuel.com), a blog devoted to ethanol and other biofuels. The Zimmermans also help farm groups and ag businesses develop blogs and podcasts.
“Blogs take your message right to the audience that's interested,” says Cindy. The Ethanol Promotion and Information Council, for example, sponsors Domestic Fuel, the Zimmermans' most popular blog. The multi-media site, which gets about 50,000 page views a month, includes original interviews and coverage of industry events.
The ethanol trade group sent Chuck on a 3,300-mile road trip last summer in an ethanol promotion truck, as part of a convoy marking the 50th anniversary of the interstate highway system. The Domestic Fuel blog featured Chuck's daily news reports from the road, as well as photos, video clips and podcasts.
Although Zimmcomm's focus is agri-business weblogs, Cindy is also a fan of personal farm blogs, which abound in the blogosphere. These diaries of daily farm life and work “are very good for getting agriculture's story out to the general public.”
Stu Ellis is a new kind of Extension educator.
Like the first county agents, he travels widely, talking to farmers and bringing them new ideas. Like those county agents who went from farm to farm in their Model T Fords meeting up with farmers in their fields and barns, Ellis is a symbol of technological advance in American agriculture.
But Ellis travels the country on the worldwide Web, and he meets up with farmers in the fast-growing dimension known as the blogosphere. Ellis is a blogger. He writes The Farm Gate, an educational blog for Midwestern farmers published by the University of Illinois.
Ellis has 30 years of experience in farm journalism and ag education — the ideal background for an Extension blogger, says University of Illinois economist Scott Irwin. “We were plain lucky that the right person was available to be our blogger.”
Ellis, 59, grew up on an Illinois grain and livestock farm and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in communications from the University of Illinois.
He began his career as a farm broadcaster in Decatur, then became marketing director for the American Soybean Association and also developed a variety of educational programs for the Illinois Farm Bureau.
When Ellis was approached to write The Farm Gate, “I couldn't even have told you what a blog was,” he says. But he was soon hooked by the powerful new medium.