We've all been to those buffets where we ante up $6-7 and eat 'til we drop. The Internet offers a similar deal. For a fixed price we can chow down on information as fast as our computers can download it.
But the Internet is better than the local buffet because it never closes. In that respect, the Internet may be the ultimate all-you-can-eat dinner. But it's no free lunch. The Internet gobbles time, and for farmers, time is money.
The Internet bulges with enough information to overwhelm any farmer. There are sites with used truck prices, sites for the weather and sites for production information. Do you wonder whether genetically engineered crops do better than traditional varieties? The federal government has a site for that, too.
No one knows how many agricultural Web sites there are. But a free Internet service called AgriSurf (www.agrisurf.com) gives some idea. AgriSurf has assembled a list of 12,751 ag sites, 49 of them on soybeans alone. The service, put together by University of Georgia student Stuart Pocknee, speeds the searches by organizing sites by category. Another ag-specific site to try: www.agfind.com.
At the University of Kentucky, some ag students learn the breadth of the World Wide Web by searching for unlikely conglomerations of information.
"Last year we had them look up a list of Kentucky junkyards," says Steve Isaacs, extension farm management specialist.
Such assignments show students that almost anything can be found on the ever-expanding Internet, and it gives them the tools to find it. But survival in the information age requires common sense.
"If you spend 20 hours a week on the Web, that's too much," says Isaacs. "I see farmers who have too much information. It sort of bogs them down." What then should you do? Here are some tips.
* Avoid wide-open searches. "Don't go to a search engine and type the word agriculture," warns Isaacs. "You're going to get 17 million hits." Target searches with key words.
"If you're looking for information on soybeans, you need to refine the search," says Gordon Groover, extension agent at Virginia Tech. For example, specify soybean fertilizers, soybean herbicides and soybean varieties. If those yield too much data, you may need to refine the search further by adding one or more key words.
* Make use of multiple search engine sites. Such search sites as dogpile.com, searchking.com and hotbot.com are a few of many sites that use a number of search engines at one time.
* Mark often-used Web sites with bookmarks. These might include a weather site and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
* Ask other farmers or extension agents for addresses of useful Web sites.
* Think twice before using information from another state's site. "Beans that are useful in Minnesota probably won't do well in the South," says Groover. Also, don't write off traditional sources of information, such as journals like Soybean Digest. Ag journals save time because the editors have already filtered useless information.
In the information age, information is money. But farmers still make money the old fashioned way - they grow it. And that takes time.
"I try to get folks to think of information as an input, just like fertilizer," Kentucky's Isaacs says. "As long as it makes more money than it costs, it's valuable information. But if you spend too much time to get it, it's like overfertilizing."