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Farmers adopting computers, other technological tools

Saturday, January 5, 2008

OSAGE BEACH, Mo. -- The changes have come lightning quick in the nearly three decades since Missouri agricultural extension agents first preached the power of computers to skeptical farmers.

Gone are the bulky main frames, archaic floppy disks and bewildered stares that used to greet agricultural educators as they attempted to persuade farmers to embrace technology.

Now, computer-savvy cattlemen and crop farmers are lining up to try out the latest gadgets, from tractor-mounted mapping systems to market reports delivered as podcasts.

"Farmers are much more technologically savvy than people think," said John Travlos, a University of Missouri extension agent. "They have to be. Agriculture is big business."

From savvy, longtime computer users to novices looking for tips, farmers from across Missouri gathered Friday at a Lake of the Ozarks resort for the university's annual farm computer users' conference.

Topics ranged from basic spreadsheet use for managing finances to implementing "precision agriculture" techniques to maximize crop yields through computer-driven soil testing and fertilizer applications.

Ron Sommer, 57, has raised cattle and tended row crops for more than 35 years. He primarily uses computers to pay his bills, or to pull marketing data from the Web.

Like many at the conference, he now wants to explore ways to further embrace technology. With an almost childlike wonder, he described a recent presentation that showed how infrared sensors are used to more efficiently apply nitrogen fertilizer.

"It's just snowballing," he said, referring to farmers' use of technological tools.

Some participants arrived with a technological zeal that wouldn't be out of place in Silicon Valley.

Norman Brown of Aledo, Ill., is a lifelong farmer whose interest in computers spurred him to start a company that specializes in farm-friendly software to compile crop summaries, cost analyses, livestock feeding schedules and other specialized applications.

Brown came to Missouri to push his product, but he also came to learn.

"I'm here to learn what's new," he said. "As long as Bill Gates is in charge, something will be obsolete tomorrow."

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