In case you haven't noticed there are a lot of tractors on the information superhighway these days ... and they're not just poking along in the right lane.
As with other industries, agriculture has launched itself into the Information Age big time. With less than 2 percent of the U.S. population involved in agriculture today, it's important that the people who produce our food and fiber have the latest technology, whether it be a computer linked to a weather station or a tractor guided by satellite beams.
Helping Oregon farmers and ranchers navigate in cyberspace, Mission Control so to speak, is Oregon State University's network of Extension Service and Agricultural Experiment Station personnel and facilities.
So, where exactly is the brave new world of information technology taking one of Oregon's most economically, environmentally and socially important industries? All the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension Service officials asked this question recently were in resounding agreement: "Who knows?"
"It's hard to say, because who would have predicted what's happening now 10 years ago," says Mike Burke, associate director of the Experiment Station.
Lyla Houglum, who heads the OSU Extension Service, agrees.
"The whole communication technology industry has changed so quickly there are parts of it that, even two or three years ago, we couldn't even imagine," she says. "Much of what is going to be happening in the year 2000 we're simply not even going to be able to conceptualize today."
But one thing Burke, Houglum and others do foresee is that the Experiment Station and Extension Service, which are headquartered in Corvallis but have branches and offices around the state, will play leading roles as more lanes are added to the information superhighway in Oregon.
No doubt the most dramatic and exciting lanes today are the Internet and the World Wide Web. Gain access to the Web and within seconds you can be deep inside a university library anywhere on earth, or on top of market prices thousands of miles away.
Within the Web, it's the home page that is drawing most of the attention from Internet users these days, the ag community included.
Simply speaking, home pages are windows that look out onto a world of related information. Usually, they deal with one particular subject area, such as a company's product line or the life and gags of Rodney Dangerfield. By simply clicking on links within the page, users are transported to related databases.
About two years ago, OSU branch experiment stations and Extension Service county offices started looking into creating their own home pages so that farmers would have access to information concerning the crops they grow and the livestock they raise.
Oregon's very first Web page created specifically for commodity growers was the Northwest Berry & Grape InfoNet (NB&GI). Introduced in December of 1995, this unique cyberservice tells--and shows--users almost everything they could ever want to know about growing crops like strawberries, caneberries, blueberries and wine grapes.
NB&GI is the creation, primarily, of district extension agent Ed Hellman, who works out of OSU's North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora just south of Portland.
When the NB&GI home page was launched, there wasn't much activity, says Hellman. Now, he reports, it's taking up to 70 "hits" (inquiries) a day. At the time this article was being prepared, the total number of times people had accessed the page looking for information was more than 6,000.
Mail groups available to growers are one of the most popular features of the NB&GI.
"Mail groups are really good for posing a question to a large audience," says Hellman. "Say you're seeing something unusual in your vineyard (such as a disease that can't be identified), you can access the collective wisdom of potentially thousands of wine grape growers around the world."
The NB&GI home page also links users with industry newsletters and research data, and tells them what prices crops are selling for around the world.
Blueberry and caneberry grower Phil Olson of Amity, Oregon, makes good use of Hellman's InfoNet. "I use it for different things different times of the year," he says. "Ed does a good job in keeping it current."
Because of the InfoNet, Olson can now keep packers he grows for on their toes in price negotiations. "I can pull (industry-wide) prices up in a heartbeat and see if my prices are reasonable," he says.
He also can learn what packers are getting for their processed product. When he thinks margins are higher than they should be between what he's paid for his raw product and what processors are earning for the processed product, he lets them know.
What is believed to be Oregon's first ag-oriented home page is the Forage Information System (FIS), put together on the OSU campus under the direction of crop scientist David Hannaway.
Hannaway says that it wasn't that long ago that there was "fairly universal resistance" to computerizing agriculture. He sees that obstacle "dissolving now." It's even to the point where interested parties are asking him why his home page doesn't contain more data, he said.
What can a grower or rancher learn from FIS? Well, for starters, users can click on a colorful map of the United States and quickly call up the addresses of many forage extension specialists, instructors and researchers around the country.
There also are links to dozens of forage and pasture crops that tell farmers how to grow the various species. Information on such topics as making silage and controlling pests also is available.
One thing about the Internet that excites Hannaway, he says, is that people around the world in agriculture can share the workload in certain areas and reduce duplication.
He says that FIS is nowhere near the information system he sees it becoming.
Unlike many home pages that remain rather static, FIS has been quick to incorporate new information. For example, Hannaway has already added information about a recent forage crop trade mission to China.
They are also working on providing definitive information on the grass seed crops grown in Oregon. The first species to be addressed is perennial ryegrass, one of Oregon's leading seed crops.
Once completed, grass seed segments on the Web will inform growers how to best manage their crops for disease control and maximum yields. Links also will include information on new species.
But while many growers are incorporating computer technology into their farming practices, there are others who have neither the know-how nor the equipment to access information online, notes Ann Schauber. That's where the county extension offices can help, says the head of the OSU Extension Service's Yamhill County office.
"In Yamhill County, we have a computer with Internet access available for farmers to use. We can sit down with growers and help them become comfortable with the technology," says Schauber.
"Our agents are also working with a system that allows growers to map their fields. By inputting the field map with soil type and all the applications on that field, growers can begin to fine-tune their input of fertilizers and chemicals. For the farmer who does not have that capability yet, the county extension office can be the place to begin."
The Extension Service and Experiment Station are providing online assistance that goes beyond agriculture and forestry, points out Ken Kingsley, the head of OSU's Department of Extension and Experiment Station Communications.
Online publications, audio programs and calendars are helping home gardeners produce more and better fruits and vegetables. Online educational materials are helping families cope with fewer resources and greater demands. Homemakers are getting online to learn more about how to insure safe, wholesome food for the family. Community leaders are accessing the Web to download educational materials that help them move toward greater economic and social wellbeing.
This is the tip of the iceberg, says Kingsley. He predicts that in the not-too-distant future the Extension Service and Experiment Station will have videotaped programs running on the Web, along with interactive programs that will allow Oregonians to customize an educational experience to their needs.
Another Extension goal is to help rural Oregon onto the superhighway on-ramp.
Lyla Houglum, the Extension Service director, who is in regular contact with Oregon's rural communities, says county commissioners tell her they need help in getting their constituents on the Internet.
Perhaps no one summed up the importance of the information superhighway more dramatically than a Sherman County commissioner who told Houglum, "Every day our kids are not on the Internet, they're falling behind the rest of the world."
Houglum does not want to see Oregon fall behind. "I want Oregonians to know that OSU is really listening to the people of this state and responding to their needs," she says.
OSU president Paul Risser has assigned her the mission of expanding access to OSU through off-campus programs. "We're talking," she says, "about county extension being the 'front door' to the entire university, not just the degree programs here. Certainly the best way to take OSU to the people is through communication technology."
Thayne Dutson, the director of OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, is a living, state-hopping example of how the technology can help a person.
"I do my electronic mail from motel rooms throughout the state and the country, either connected to the World Wide Web or to our OSU server on campus," says Dutson. "The combination of my laptop computer and a cellular phone make me almost as accessible on the road as I am in my office."
Instead of flip charts, Dutson uses his laptop computer to interface with farmers around the state in numerous town hall-type meetings. The computer is loaded with an OSU-produced database called Oregon Invests! that shows his audiences the economic, social and environmental benefits of ag research in Oregon.
Dutson, who is also the dean of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences, cautions that simply producing technology for technology's sake is a big mistake. It's his and Houglum's job to be gatekeepers, so to speak, and assure that information produced and presented by OSU has meaning and doesn't just add to the congestion already found on the cluttered information superhighway.
"But it's amazing how quickly people in the agriculture industry are embracing this technology as they realize it provides instant information," says Dutson. "We don't know exactly where it's going. But we're confident it's someplace significant."