Report: internet "underutilized" resource on U.S. farms, ranches

Aug 23, 2013

Farmers and ranchers are connected to many things—the land, history, America’s roots—but a recent report shows that the internet is not one of those things. At least not as much as the rest of the country.

Every two years, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) releases the Farm Computer Usage and Ownership report. The most recent installment came out last Tuesday. The findings show computer ownership and internet access by farmers and ranchers are closing the usage gap with nonfarming citizens. More than a passing curiosity, the trends in technology use can be invaluable to those serving the agricultural community.

According to the report, internet access—the percentage of ag households with access to a the internet—stands at 67 percent across the country. Regionally, this ranges from the low of 64 percent in Southern states to 73 percent in Western states.

When broken down by farm type, dairy and beef farms were the least likely to have internet access at 63 percent. The most connected farms were cotton farms with 74 percent having access to the internet.

These ag-specific numbers compare to the 85 percent of citizens across the country, who “are online,” according to the most recent data (May 19) from the Pew Internet and American Life Project conducted by the Pew Research Center. Interestingly, according to the ongoing Pew Internet study, 80 percent of “rural” Americans are connected.

Use of computers for farm business also increased across the country overall, from 37 to 40 percent respectively in 2011 and 2013. Again, Western farming operations were more likely to use computers for farm work than were those in the South. For beef cattle operations specifically, this number for 2013 was 35 percent.

Not unsurprisingly, the larger (financially) the operation, the more likely it is to have computer and internet access, as well as to use computers for farm business. Among uses tracked by the report were purchasing inputs, conducting online marketing, and accessing USDA reports, all of which had relatively low participation rates.

Troy Joshua, USDA/ NASS Chief Environmental, Economics, and Demographics Branch, spoke to WLJ briefly regarding the “why” behind the difference between internet access and computer use, and usage of computers for farm business.

“Farmers are starting to use it more,” he said of computer use for farm business. “But the other key is just because you have access, doesn’t necessitate using it for business.”

He said there is no data on farmer motivations to use or not use computers and the internet for farm business, and did not offer an opinion on why.

Dr. Cynthia Clark, US- DA/NASS Administrator, did not offer an opinion on the “why” behind the large difference between access and use for business, but she was troubled by it. She opined that, while the growth is encouraging, the disparity between internet access on American farms and use of computers and internet for farm business is concerning.

“While more than half of America’s farms now have access to the Internet, this resource is being greatly underutilized to connect producers with NASS tools and resources.”

She pointed out numerous efforts on the part of USDA and NASS to connect producers with information online.

“Did you know you can subscribe to receive NASS reports free via email on the NASS website? That you can view the newest cropland data layer online through CropScape—a new service that eliminates the need for specialized expertise or equipment in order to view satellite images? Or that with a simple click of a mouse, you can access data from the agricultural census dating back as far as 1840?” As mentioned, information on the usage of the internet and computers for farm business helps those who serve the agricultural community.

Those who market products to agricultural producers need to know where farmers get there information or look for services, for example.

Editor’s note: As we at WLJ are in the business of serving the farming community, and particularly the cattle ranching community, we too are interested in how farmers use the internet for work. We will be sending out our Readership Survey this fall and hope that you will respond as fully as possible. In knowing more about how you, our readers, access information relevant to your business, we can better serve your needs. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor