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New communication technology's knocking on the farm gate

They may seem like toys and timewasters now, but more folks in farm country are starting to glean value from new technology like smartphones and social networking.

Andy Kleinschmidt got an unexpected phone call the other day. A producer from CNN wanted to put him on the air to talk about his use of smartphones and similar technology in his work as an Ohio State University Extension educator and certified crop adviser in Van Wert County, Ohio.

"CNN found me via my blog, reinforcing the value of blogs, in my mind," says Kleinschmidt, also an Agriculture Online Crop Tech Tour CCA Correspondent.

Blog? Smartphones? Sound like a foreign language to you? If it does, it won't for long, says University of Illinois Extension soybean specialist Vince Davis. But, that growing necessity doesn't make it easier to figure it all out.

"Methods and tools used to communicate are changing worldwide, a reality that has not excluded agriculture," says Davis, a self-proclaimed "full-fledged member of 'Generation X.'" "I suspect that some new tools and methods will fade out with time, and not having spent energy understanding or learning to use them might be a benefit to some. However, the greatest benefits will be accrued by early adopters who can continue to improve the volume and efficiency of news and information they receive."

Davis says the development of today's new communication tools is not too different from some other new technologies of the recent past that are now, to most farmers, integral to their daily work. "You can probably remember life without computers, cell phones, digital cameras, and the Internet, but would your work today be as efficient without these luxuries? Do most of us even consider those items luxuries, or have they become necessities for our daily operations?"

One such "gadget" that's becoming a needed tool for some already is the smartphone. Kleinschmidt has relied on his Samsung Omnia i910 smartphone now for months in the work he does in the field, and he's starting to find and use more ag-specific applications.

"I use Excel Mobile for data collection, I'm looking into a field station transmitter for recording soil/air temperatures, rain and wind, and I also use mobile web for weather radar images all the time," he says. "It allows me to get better and more timely information for me to make decisions. Better info equals better decisions. Also, because it is seamless, I do not need to 'go to the office' to check e-mail -- this helps to free up time to keep me in the field."

The smartphone is a relatively new tool, and that means the number of applications is beginning to grow rapidly. That includes agriculture, Kleinschmidt says.

"I see a neat opportunity for a farmer to snap a photo of a weed, bug or plant lesion and immediately e-mail to their agronomist for ID and recommendation from the field," he says of future potential applications.

But, the hardware is sometimes just part of the equation. There are also new social media and networking tools on the Web that can, depending on how you look at it, either waste a ton of your time or become a valuable asset to your business.

"The emergence of 'new media' and 'social media' has created rapid changes," UIUC's Davis says. "Social media refers to the use of digital technologies by individuals to socialize online and to share personal ideas, thoughts, news, information and content, both between individuals and among groups."

Some of these tools include the most commonly talked-about Facebook and Twitter, a microblogging tool. They have different potential effects for a farm business, and that's still being discovered by those using it.

"Between January and April of this year, Facebook membership increased from 150 to 200 million people, with the fastest-growing age group being over 35. Facebook is being used as a social tool among many agriculture-minded individuals: interest groups like the many state Farm Bureaus, science interest groups like the Weed Science Society of America, and less formal groups, including 'I'm an agronomist,'" Davis says. "Several of the major agricultural companies use Twitter to promote products and engage farmers in informational forums. In some regard Twitter makes a lot of sense because farmers (and their cell phones) are very mobile, while many of the other media platforms require being at a computer with a high-speed Internet connection."

Whether it's buying a new smartphone and learning how it can help you keep track of everything on your farm, or logging in to a new social media tool to connect with a neighbor or other farmers, Davis says it's important to do what you can to keep up with the latest communication technology, especially in today's era of rapidly changing technology.

"Things are changing so fast that it is hard to keep up with all the 'new stuff' and determine how advancing technologies can be used to help your farm or small agricultural business," he says.

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