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Technology, Internet can be powerful management tools for Mississippi farmers

Perceptions must change for ag e-commerce to work in state`s agriculture

MISSISSIPPI STATE — Providing farmers easy access to the Internet, and the training to go along with it, is the focus of several university research grants aimed at improving e-commerce in Mississippi agribusiness.

“The agriculture industry and all of the excitement that is e-commerce hinges on a particular aspect: the customer’s perception of information technology, the Internet and conducting business on the Internet,” said Dr. Gary Wingenbach, assistant professor at Mississippi State University’s Agribusiness Institute.

“The widespread perception in Mississippi is less than favorable toward e-commerce and information technology. I am very hopeful that, through projects and programs, we can reduce this uneasiness that is strictly tied to knowledge,” he said.

In June, the National Science Foundation approved a $550,000-grant for Mississippi State University to research information technology workforce issues on minority groups and women in agribusiness. Later this month, MSU officials anticipate approval for a $500,000-grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in collaboration with Hinds Community College and Alcorn State University, for a three-year study on e-commerce issues.

Thanks to a small grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Mississippi State University Extension Service will host a series of e-commerce workshops geared to the agribusiness community beginning this fall.

“E-commerce is a powerful tool, but it’s also very scary if it’s used wrong,” said Dr. Robert Moore, assistant professor at MSU’s Agribusiness Institute.

“What happens if a farmer decides to sell his products over the Web and he gets an order from outside the country? Now he’s an exporter,” Moore said. “Once you go online, you have to think about those issues. Another example, some states — and countries — allow certain pesticides. A lot of it is available for purchase over the Web. It’s left up to the buyer to know the laws and regulations.”

Dr. Lester Spell, the state’s agriculture commissioner, said e-commerce is not the financial answer for farmers, but an advanced management tool.

“It can be used for anything from purchasing chemicals and fertilizer to finding new distribution channels,” Spell said. “There are a lot of Web sites that have sprung up dealing with these different areas, such as tradingproduce.com, foodtrader.com, rooster.com, and xsag.com.”

The NSF grant will fund research in high school agriculture-education programs around the state that utilize computer-based modules in computer technology classrooms. The three-year study will determine perceptions in choosing information technology in agribusiness careers. Funding could be in place by January, Wingenbach said.

“Each module consists of a specific focus in very focused programs, like beef or aquaculture production, that utilize information technology on a regular basis,” said Wingenbach.

The USDA grant covers holding focus group sessions with agribusiness professionals around the state, determining e-commerce concepts and its impact on the agribusiness industry.

“When we ask a farmer how he perceives the Internet helping him five years from now, he’ll usually say something like ordering seed in smaller batches by going to an auction site or buying and selling equipment internationally,” said Moore.

“That’s just the buying end. If they want to sell products to consumers, farmers, who are geared to bulk production and bulk transfer to distributors, must change their entire business operation, such as micropackaging to consumers, computerizing an ordering system, possibly bar coding. Farmers need to plan to react. What if demand exceeds supply? It’s a great position to be in, but the next year, people won’t place orders because the demand couldn’t be met,” he said.

MSU Extension Service’s e-commerce conference, transmitted live through interactive video to Cleveland, Jackson, Meridian, Summit and Verona, will be held Nov. 9. A series of entrepreneur seminars covering basic business start-up, marketing, record keeping, taxes and business plan guidelines will begin in October, and an e-commerce series will begin in January, all at the extension center in Verona, said Dr. Beth Duncan, a small business specialist at MSU Extension Service.

Old business models do not fare well on the Internet, Wingenbach said.

“The Internet is tied to speed, pioneering efforts and new business models, particularly with niche markets, such as produce, or finding supplies through a cooperative effort,” he said. “That will pervade throughout the agriculture industry.”

Regardless of training, if farmers don’t have easy access to the Internet, it’s not doing the agricultural community any good, said Wingenbach.

Progress is rapidly being made to bring rural telecom infrastructure up to speed, thanks to money allocated to BellSouth for a multi-year program by the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund.

“BellSouth is targeting nearly $60 million this year to upgrade its network infrastructure and provide high-speed data services previously unavailable to customers in rural areas of Mississippi,” said Larry Greer, BellSouth’s director of community affairs.

“The majority of these funds will be used to improve loops or connections between the customer’s premise and switching office and to replace switching offices,” Greer said.

“Loop improvements will provide rural customers faster modem speeds and access to enhanced services not currently available. These services include asymmetrical digital subscriber line or other digital subscriber line services. Switch replacements will provide rural customers with the full spectrum of digital and voice services available in BellSouth’s marketing portfolio,” Greer said.

The passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act paved the way for the FCC to establish a universal service fund to upgrade facilities in rural areas as a solution to its lagging infrastructure problem.

“The primary goal of BellSouth’s telecommunications infrastructure improvement program is to ensure business and residential customers in rural areas will have access to telecommunication services in a manner similar to that for customers in urban areas,” Greer said.

“Mississippi farmers will be able to lower costs, increase margins, boost productivity and enhance customer satisfaction by leveraging a number of Internet, intranet and extranet applications,” Greer said.

“For example, for less than $100 per month, our farmers can open a BellSouth Site Builder Store on the Internet. Through their ‘electronic commerce store,’ farmers are able to equip their Web site to sell products and services online; list up to 500 items complete with pictures and text descriptions; and utilize a shopping cart for order processing,” Greer said.

It’s tough for farmers to make a living and technology is one piece of the puzzle, Spell said.

“Our job is to make sure that farmers have all the tools they need to not only survive, but to prosper,” Spell said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lynne@thewritingdesk.com or (601) 853-3967.


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