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Digital Native vs. Digital Immigrant

In May of 1995, Jim Meade was working on getting back into farming, having bought his family's farm in eastern Iowa to work the land after three decades of military service.

That same month, Jared Calvert was born.

Calvert and Meade are separated by about 50 years in age, but they're both members of an agriculture industry and lifestyle that's increasingly shaped by the advancement of the digital world that began about two decades ago. Meade is a digital immigrant; his life preceded the rise of the Internet and digital world. Calvert, on the other hand, is a digital native, a young farmer and college student who's lived his entire life with the Internet.

Looking back, Meade says the Web's development and advancement has, at least in his own experience and farm circumstances, been a win-win. The former Army officer worked with what would ultimately become the World Wide Web decades ago during his service. So, when his sword became a plowshare, Meade was well-adjusted to the new wave of digital technology . . . at least more so than the work he'd be taking on moving forward.

"On one hand, as a mature man who was coming back to the farm, I was kind of a greenhorn to farming. And, I was eager to learn. I was a little bit bashful about the fact that here I was a mature man sometimes asking silly questions. At the same time, I had something I could contribute; I'd used the Internet, both professionally and personally, for a number of years. So, I was able to come in and help people pick out a modem, connect a modem, get online, set up basic commands . . . I found that very rewarding," says Meade, who farms near Iowa City, Iowa. "So, it kind of satisfied a few things at once for me. On one hand, I was able to gather a tremendous amount of information that I badly needed at the time. On the other hand, I was able to serve a lot of people with something I was good at that they were still learning. It was really good from both sides of the perspective for me. It was symbiotic for me."

Before the Web, Meade and many farmers like him relied on farm magazines, newspapers and face-to-face chats with other farmers and experts at places like the coffee shop, co-op, and local Extension office. That's all a sort of afterthought to Calvert, who's interwoven the Web into his life as long as he can remember. Now, he goes to the medium not just to keep up with news and current events -- both in and out of the farm industry -- but to discuss that information in ways that have become necessary since so much information is fundamentally at everyone's disposal.

"Throughout my life I have used the Internet for a variety of purposes, including communicating, working on school projects, and catching up on the latest news. The Internet has been a major tool in my education, as well as my work experience," Calvert says. "In relation to agriculture, I use the Internet to catch up on the latest news and market reports. I may not be involved in farming, but keeping up on the agricultural industry is almost a requirement in my education."

The best part of the Web can also be its worst part, Calvert adds. His life is increasingly "connected all the time," with constant access to data. Though it's immensely helpful in some ways, it's ultimately distracting in others.

"My favorite part of the Web is kind of my least favorite part as well, which is how accessible it has become. With the use of smartphones and tablets, it's never been easier for me to check my email, look up something for a class, or read the news," he says. "It's also provided me with the ultimate distraction, making today's Internet both a blessing and a curse."

For Meade, on the other hand, that constant access to information afforded him by the Web is best not because of its sheer volume, but the depth to which he can dive on a specific topic, something of immense utility on his farm.

"As more and more entities came online, you would find information you wanted and use that as a basis for formulating decisions for farming. Initially, I was really interested in how online interaction and communications worked in terms of me learning new ways of doing things and what worked for other people and sharing some things that worked for me," says Meade, a longtime community member. "Initially, we saw quite a bit of growth, a lot of people discovered forums, like Agriculture Online [], and were really excited about it. There was a lot of discussion . . . how to fix your 1958 Oliver 880 or how to buy hog feed or how to plant corn. You get a lot of different opinions from a lot of different people."

What does the next 20 years hold for agriculture on the Internet? On one hand, Calvert sees it all about technology and how advancements in data management and utilization will help farmers do more with less. On the other hand, Meade sees advancing Web connectivity as a boon not just for the big farmer, but for those pursuing smaller, more specific niches.

"I believe in the next 20 years, we will see a major increase in the number of tasks that can be done via Internet. Agriculturalists can already use the Internet to gather an enormous amount of information, and they can use it to operate equipment from a distance," Calvert says. "I believe this capability will continue to develop, and technology will allow us to do an even wider range of things."

Adds Meade: "The Internet means many things to different farmers, and really depends on that farmer's particular objectives. Agriculture used to be a physical community. Now, your agriculture community is a virtual community. Technology could make the very individual, unique-niche, stand-alone farmer more viable. What that means to me is there is great hope for the guy who wants to be part of a niche market. In the old days, he'd have felt isolated and smothered. Now, he can find kindred spirits. I think that has the potential to permit and encourage diversification. That gets to the question of how you develop critical mass on the Internet.”


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