6 December 1996

Surfers guide to world-wide farm web sites

Time was when a "net" was used for fishing, and "surfing" required the ocean waves. Now, these are terms inextricably linked with the Internet. Peter Hill dips into this world-wide collection of computer-based information to see whats of agricultural interest

FOR anyone who has not been brought up with computers, the concept of the Internet is something of a mystery. In reality, it is quite simple – a mass of computers, owned by individuals, companies, educational establishments and other organisations, capable of being linked to one another via telephone lines.

The World Wide Web is a more specific part of that network, comprising a collection of computer files specifically designed to provide information (on a free or paid-for basis) for whoever would find it of interest.

Subjects available to those who access this vast network are myriad and the number of web sites to view is accelerating all the time. In the agricultural industry, more companies, institutions, colleges, universities and other organisations are providing web sites on which "surfers" can view and, if required, permanently record the information they provide by printing it or downloading files to their own computer.

Typing "agriculture" or "farming" into the search software throws up a big list of web sites with the key word in the title or description. More specific searches can be carried out by careful use of qualifying words or word combinations such as "dairy" or "agricultural machinery". Search methods come easier with practice.

Type in the web site title or mouse-click on the underlined text ("hypertext" for those who want to learn the jargon) and the file held on the distant computer reveals all. Not trade secrets, of course, only information the web site owner wants to make available.

A degree of patience (and a fast modem) is needed at this stage because these are pretty big files that can take 30sec or more to even start appearing on screen. Only when the "home page" – the introductory page – has appeared can the underlying pages of information be accessed. This requires no more than a mouse-click on hypertext or a graphic representation of the sections available for viewing.

Some web sites include a list of "links" which give direct access to other web sites of related interest, and this is a useful way of navigating the system. Users can return to sites found useful by adding them to a personal "bookmark" list for quick reference.

North America leads the way in Internet usage and UK input, particularly on agricultural topics, is still at a very low level. But it is growing and likely to accelerate as more individuals equip themselves and start using the Internet as a source of information. Subscribers to Internet service providers are now invariably offered free space in which to establish their own web sites; so, individual farm businesses can have sites providing information on their farm, farming practices and the products they sell – and one or two, such as Swanton Farms (swantonfarms.com), in Kent already do.

A successful web site, however, needs careful design; first, so that it does not take too long to wend its way down the telephone line to the enquirers computer screen; second, so that it is easy and logical to use. A good web site also needs to be regularly updated since one of the reasons for using the Internet is that it should provide access to the latest information.

Among the most useful sites for arable producers at present are those maintained by the Home-Grown Cereals Authority (hgca.co.uk), which give daily reports on cereal and oilseeds markets, agri-money rates, prices and import/export figures for wheat and barley, and the Chicago Board of Trade (cbot.com) which provides price and trend commentaries on agricultural commodities. MAFFs contribution (maff.gov .uk) covers a wide range of information on agriculture, food and related topics, including press statements on current issues.

On the livestock front, National Milk Records (nmr.co.uk) uses its Internet site to promote its services, while Advanced Breeders (bull-semen.com), the Hereford Herd Book Society (ibmpcug.co.uk) focus on their own particular interests on the stock breeding front, as do North American businesses Semex (semex.com) and Cattle Offerings Worldwide (cattleofferings.com), an Internet-based cattle embryo agency. The MLC-maintained British Meat Site (britishmeat.org.uk) promotes UKmeat products through recipes and nutritional information.

Among the machinery manufacturers, trailer and slurry tanker maker Fraser Agricultural (ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/farl) has taken the lead as – it would appear – the only UK farm equipment company with an Internet presence. Its site gives detailed information and specifications on all its products and has a special section on new introductions.

JCB(jcb.co.uk) presents a company history and product information while, elsewhere, international players Kverneland (kverneland.com), Overum, New Holland (newholland.com), Deere & Co (deere.com), Case (casecorp.com) and Massey Ferguson parent AGCO (agco.corp) have sites; the last four are strongly oriented to North American markets with product information of varying detail (a lot from Case, surprisingly little from AGCO and Deere), dealer locations, and company background and news.

New Hollands site, which includes the companys own online magazine, is accessed as a "partner" to Agriculture On-line, a partially open, partially subscriber-only Internet service run by the US magazine, Successful Farming (agriculture.com). This sort of service provides a focus for information in a particular subject area (agriculture in this case) and reflects a similar project being put together by FARMERS WEEKLY for introduction next year.

The independent Farming On-line (farmline.com) is already up and running, providing its own information service and access to several commercial web pages as well as the Internet generally. The NFU, CLA and ADAS have joined forces to introduce the Rural Business Network, an add-on facility with a business information focus which is provided through the Farming On-line system.

Communications, computer-style. The Internet gives access to up-to-date information from companies, educational establishments and others.

Whats needed?

A computer; a modem (which links computers via telephone lines); a subscription to a general Internet service provider – such as Compuserve, America On Line (AOL), Pipex Dial – or a specialist agricultural service provider – such as Farming On-line; and internet browser software, which provides a means of searching for topics or names of organisations or companies.

NB: The prefix http://www. must be used with all web site addresses given in this article (eg for HGCA – http://www.hgca.co.uk will access the Home-Grown Cereals Authority site.