For more than a decade, computer gurus have known about the year 2000 computer problem - a tiny glitch in millions of computer programs that could bring government and industry to a standstill if it's not fixed.
News of the computer bug, which could shut down computers at midnight, Dec. 31, 1999, has filtered down to the public. By now, most farmers have probably heard about the problem and may assume it won't impact their businesses. That assumption could cost you money.
"For the most part, the guy out on the farm is going to be affected like the rest of us," says Paul Marvin, president of Global Knowledge Group, College Station, TX. The company provides Web site and other computer services for agriculture.
For example, computers run farm Internet sites and commodities trading. They handle data for banks, credit rating agencies, government loan programs and the IRS. And they are widely employed by industries that use corn and soybeans, such as cattle feeding, methanol production and food processing. Any of these functions - and many more - could be fouled up by the year 2000 problem.
The problem was set in motion years ago when software designers came up with an ingenious way to save precious computer program space. Instead of writing out four-digit dates, such as 1998, they abbreviated them with just two. Thus, 1998 became 98 and the year 2000 became 00.
Computers have no trouble interpreting 98 as 1998. Unfortunately, they read 00 as 1900 and become disoriented. Some foul up their intended functions. Others grindto a halt.
For example, when automobile manufacturers simulated the year 2000 on computerized robots used in car assembly lines, some of the robots froze in place. If they were not fixed, the entire assembly line would have to stop and the factory shut down.
Disruptions could also occur in the supply chain for corn and soybeans, especially if the problem disrupts transportation systems. Such disruptions probably would not have a lasting impact because neither corn nor soybeans is a perishable product. But they could cause temporary swings in prices.
Far bigger problems lurk elsewhere, especially in government computer systems that control everything from processing farm tax payments to airline traffic management.
Take the IRS, for example. If it lost your records, you could be accused of failing to pay business taxes.
"Obviously they won't lose the money," says Marvin. "But they could lose track of it."
Or, look at the issue of airline safety. Will you be in jeopardy if you fly to a convention or to another city to sign loans papers?
"I would definitely wait a couple of months before I start flying in the year 2000 just to make sure everything works," Marvin cautions.
Other potential pitfalls lie with banks, the Social Security Administration, and government loan and subsidy programs. What if your records got scrambled? Experts advise both businesses and individuals to keep hard copies of all financial records, including canceled checks.
"If they do have a problem, you can help them sort it out," says Jim Bob Ward, president of Real Time Internet Solutions, also of College Station.
"For the first three months of the year 2000, everybody in the U.S. is going to be checking their bank records, checking whether their investments are correct and making sure their insurance policies are still right," says Ward. "It would be sad to discover that crop insurance has rolled over to the year 1900 and therefore does not apply.
"You have to be self-sufficient," he adds. "You have to be able to demonstrate proof of what you have and what you don't have, what you owe and don't owe."
Still another potential booby trap lies in software used to run farm accounting and production systems. Farmers should make sure commercial software is year 2000 compliant, says Ward. In addition, farmers should make sure they haven't introduced the bug into software they have written for themselves.
Each instance of the problem is easy to correct. But overall the problem is so widespread that American industry expects to spend $300-600 billion to fix it. Even a few instances left unfixed could wreak havoc.
Fortunately, private industry has aggressively tackled the problem. Automobile assembly lines probably won't stop. Nor is the food supply chain likely to break down. But there are many smaller hazards that could mean discomfort or disaster for individual farmers if the bug strikes businesses and agencies they deal with.
The bottom line is simple: First, solve your own year 2000 problem. Once you think you've got it licked, run repeated tests to make sure it really is fixed. And if your farm system interacts with other computer systems, test the two of them together.
Second, realize that some of the businesses and government institutions you do business with may not be ready when the next century dawns. Find out which ones they are, and prepare a game plan to minimize business disruptions. For instance, if you plan machinery repairs over the winter of 1999-2000, line up spare parts early, just in case the millennium bug disrupts parts inventories.
Third, plan on something going wrong. Nobody knows for sure what's going to happen on New Year's Day, 2000. But the farm industry is, for better or worse, in the hands of computers. With that in mind, anything could happen. So fasten your seat belts. It might be a bumpy ride.