Steve Barlow used to be afraid of his computer. Now he calls it one of the most important pieces of equipment on his Princeton, IL, farm.

"Of all the new tools for a farm business, including all the high-tech precision farming equipment available today, the computer could have the greatest positive effect on a farmer's bottom line," points out Barlow.

He's among the roughly one-third of U.S. farmers who use personal computers. But getting started wasn't easy for him. By his own description, he was a computer wimp.

"I wanted to put my farm records on a computer. I also wanted to do some end-of-the-year tax planning and 'what ifs' for marketing alternatives by computer," says Barlow.

"I started looking at computers in 1991. But I didn't buy one because I figured the prices would come down. At least that's what I used as a reason for putting off the purchase. However, fear might have been the real culprit."

In 1995, at age 55 and after four years of procrastinating, he bought a computer, along with an Ag Master software package developed by the Iowa Farm Bureau.

"Then I sat and looked at it for a year," he says. "I was afraid I'd punch the wrong key. It was like buying a tractor and then letting it sit in the yard."

Finally, says Barlow, one of his daughters, an accountant, helped him transfer his farm records to the computer.

"Another daughter, a teacher, told me the computer couldn't hurt me, and I couldn't hurt the computer," he recalls. "With help from my daughters and from Ag Master, and by reading the manual, I was able to muddle my way through and get things working. However, the frustration level was high."

Based on his experience, he advises any computer-illiterate farmer to buy from a knowledgeable local dealer. Then lean on that dealer for guidance.

He also strongly suggests taking one or more classes for computer beginners.

"After a year of trying to teach myself, I took a course offered by our community college, called Friendly Computer For Seniors," Barlow remembers.

"It was five sessions of 2 1/2 hours each. It erased my fears of the computer and taught me a lot. This winter I'm taking a follow-up course.

"My brother-in-law, who is 63 and a farmer, also is taking computer courses and buying his first computer."

Barlow still is no computer whiz, but finds his machine invaluable.

"It's saved me a considerable amount of money in tax planning alone."