Futurists look at the high-speed e-commerce machine

It seems everything from communications to farming drives at breakneck speed. Can you begin to imagine what to expect from the Internet within five to 10 years? Actually, some people can. "For farmers, it will be a wonderful future," says Bill Horan, partner in Horan Brothers Agricultural Enterprises at Rockwell City, IA.

Starved for time, consumers (including farmers) are already drawn to the Internet because of lower transaction costs, Horan believes. "Consumers of the future are going to be more loyal to the experience than to the brand," says the central Iowa farmer.

Here's how four Internet gurus see the next few years unfolding for the Internet and its e-commerce capabilities.

B2B Opportunities

The biggest boon for farmers in the future will be in business-to-business (B2B) commerce, not retail, predicts Lowell Catlett, ag economist at New Mexico State University.

"Efficiencies with the Internet will be small, but worth it," says Catlett, who specializes in marketing and futuristic issues. "The real gain will be on the input side."

Outsourcing, or hiring specialists for professional assistance to maneuver through the Internet maze, will be the wave of the future, too.

For example, Catlett claims crop consultants "will be tied to the Internet." They'll become bigger players in purchasing crop inputs for farmers and they'll likely rely heavily on the B2B route.

As you rely more on consultants to make wise decisions about Internet crop input purchases, Catlett says it also becomes more important to build trusting relationships with them. "Relationships become far more important the more complex the world gets."

Catlett also believes that, as more farmers get involved in identity-preserved crops and contracts, they'll become more coupled to the Internet. "They're not going to necessarily sell on the Internet, but they're going to schedule their crops with buyers."

Still, in order to make sales work, buyers must provide a value better than the local elevator. "Moving products long distances doesn't pay. Standard market channels are still efficient and hard to beat," he says.

Fast And Furious Changes

Futurist Ryan Mathews from FirstMatter, a futuring consulting firm, thinks of e-commerce as a global cyber marketplace. And that, of course, means international commerce with potential for political trading snags. "In the next 10 years, e-commerce will be big enough globally that governments will scramble to loosen up the barriers, not tighten them. Money will be in creating bigger markets, not restricting them."

On the home front, though, it's difficult for Mathews to imagine why anyone would buy inputs from a local smaller dealer when they could get them cheaper using the Internet. "However, the smaller dealer could be participating in that exchange and could be brokering deals.

"Some of the services they (local farmer-dealers) provide currently will have diminished value in the future. But that doesn't mean they'll go away as people start doing business on the Internet. It just means it changes. The question will be whether they can add value," he says. "Radio, for example, didn't get eliminated just because of television."

Mathews likens the present Internet environment to an old Wild West town with "outlaws, pioneers, mavericks, hired guns and shady ladies.

"Right now, investment markets are rewarding the guy riding into town with guns blazing. They want to get their IPOs (initial public offerings) and get out. Clearly, there's going to be a shakeout," Mathews says. "We're going to see a huge consolidation of dot-com companies. Dodge City didn't stay wild after the sodbusters arrived."

Mathews expects that, as the Internet continues to unfold and e-commerce becomes more commonplace, farmers will see colossal progress in access. "People want functionality and they want it to be portable and easy," he says.

"I anticipate farmers will be accessing the Internet from their tractors or combines, and maybe by simply using their wristwatches.

"Flat-screen, voice-activated technology is here now, too, but the cost of the technology has to come down first," Mathews says. "Once that happens, technology will be pushed into farmers' hands."

Fewer But Better Sites

Technology will continue to develop and be faster, especially in rural areas, says Gordon Billingsley, content director for AgriClick.com. "In 10 years we'll be amazed at how completely integrated, completely fast and completely mobile the Internet will be. Nothing will hold it back," he says.

Billingsley believes that the Internet, over time, is not changing what farmers are doing. It's just providing a more efficient way to get things done.

"As Web sites become easier to navigate, those sites will actually be playing the consultants' role," he says. "Sites are constantly becoming more useful and intuitive. And that will only get better as technology gets better. We'll also be able to better personalize and customize its use."

That may become easier, too, with fewer dot-coms to navigate. Billingsley predicts that the field will narrow with only about four to five big, farmer-friendly dot-com players left. Those players, though, will provide a comprehensive amount of information that's easy and efficient to use.

"Farmers are already ahead of the general population in computer knowledge. Once e-commerce catches on, they'll be able to make immediate decisions to make more money," he says.

Cut-Rate Coordination

If you're still wondering how this Internet technology will affect you, take a look at the produce industry, says Bruce Babcock, director of Iowa State University's Center for Agriculture and Rural Development.

"On-demand or just-in-time production is where we'll see value created by the Internet," Babcock explains. "The Internet creates new supply chains at lower costs."

For example, Babcock says that some big vegetable and fruit companies - worldwide - are locating particular products to get ripe at a particular time for delivery. Fresh fruits and vegetables from Arizona, California, Mexico, Chile and New Zealand are now feeding an integrated, year-round supply for consumers.

"There's a high-cost of coordinating and scheduling all that, which now is done cheaply by matching buyers to sellers via the Internet," Babcock explains.

But that won't happen unless customers have good experiences. "Farmers will go to sites in the future only if they know they can trust delivery and service. Those are the sites that will survive," Babcock says.