Web offers information or just a chance to chat

DOWN ON THE FARM

September 28, 1998|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Ida Mae was a saucy old gal. She still looked like a '30s film star in a feather boa and pillbox hat, even when time started to pass her by.

She rebuffed boys who tried to breed her and scared off enemies with a distinctive squawk. And when she grew old and sluggish - sleeping away the day and losing weight - her dear friend Gwen Roland took to the Internet to try to save her life.

"She has a distinct voice, sort of a complaining tone, and she is always vocal," Roland wrote in August to the members of an e-mail discussion group. "I will miss her. I just wanted to talk about her, and you are the only people who want to hear this kind of stuff. I will let you know how it turns out. Let me know if there's anything curable this could be."

Ida Mae, of course, was a chicken - a Columbian Wyandotte whose rosy comb resembled a hat and whose black-and-white neck feathers made a fashion statement. For years, Roland shared Ida Mae stories with the members of DOM ... BIRD @PLEARN.EDU.PL, a collection of domestic bird owners bound

by a common tendency to treat their animals as though they were people.

The poignant bulletins about the state of Ida Mae's health illustrate just how far agriculture has come online. Farmers use the Internet for everything from exchanging personal information attending cyberauctions that handle bids on everything from livestock to equipment.

The Internet also taught Patricia M. Chester much of what she knows about goats. When she and her husband, Nelson W. Chester Jr., decided to keep the animals six years ago on their Whaleyville farm, they turned to the computer for help.

Now the couple, who also grow broilers for Tyson Foods, have started a poultry chat group that "meets" online Monday and Thursday nights. Participation waxes and wanes, but farmers have logged in from as far away as Israel.

"If we have a problem, we sit there and discuss it just like we're in the living room," Pat Chester said.

The marriage of one of the world's oldest occupations and its newest communications medium isn't the mismatch it might seem to those who picture farmers as fiercely independent adherents to a disappearing way of life.

Farmers, after all, are businessmen first, accustomed to sifting through technical research to find a competitive edge - a new way to deal with the weather, a home remedy for ailing chicks, a better-performing tractor.

"The agricultural industry is really, I think, a leader here because it's so geographically dispersed and the information is so complicated," said Bryan Pfaffenberger, an associate professor at the University of Virginia who studies the impact of the Internet on society. "I think anytime you've got a lot of really complex information going into a decision-making process like this, the Internet can play an important role by allowing customers, if they wish to do so, to access this material directly."

Government has gotten into the act as well. Last week, the U.S. House Agriculture committee became the first congressional panel to broadcast its proceedings on live audio over the Internet, according to committee spokesman Chris Matthews.

Agricultural use of the Internet still has some growing to do, at least on the family farm. A 1997 survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, based on responses from nearly 34,000 agricultural operations, found that 31 percent of U.S. farm homes had computers, and 13 percent had Internet access.

"There's an increasing number of farmers on the Web, but there's a lot out here that aren't. We have to keep that in mind," said David Petritz, assistant director of cooperative extension programs at Purdue University in Indiana, which maintains a host of agricultural links at www.purdue.edu. "I would say we always run across some families at the state fair who've never tried it."

The concept of buying and selling livestock online is just getting off the ground as companies experiment with new new ways to attract customers. Cattle Offerings Worldwide - otherwise known COW - has "reverse auctions," in which buyers post their needs and requirements online, and sellers bid for their business. Since COW began auctioning online last year, it has handled about $300,000 in sales of dairy embryos, cattle and bull semen.

Ben Zaitz, owner of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based company, said online auctions - particularly those that take place exclusively over the Internet - can cut down dramatically on costs by eliminating expenses for printing catalogs, mailing them and shipping cattle to the auction site. The company gets a commission of 2 to 15 percent per transaction, depending on the item sold.

Zaitz, whose company also auctions farm equipment and real estate online, said the Internet will never completely replace live cattle sales.

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