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Agriculture.com at 20: Farmers Remain On Bleeding Edge of Web Technology

Though the existence of the Internet precedes its widespread consumer use by several decades, the medium as a way to communicate, find information, entertain, shop, network, and more has only been around for a couple of decades, a time in which its utility and general role in everyday life has been nothing short of meteoric in its rise.

Agriculture.com was launched in May 1995 when the Web was young. It was the Wild West of digital media development when there was no precedent for something like a website. But just like in the real Wild West, farmers played an integral role in its settlement and cultivation.

"It was just the general sense that we were in some kind of new territory, and I guess I sometimes imagined that it was like that around the time the printing press was invented. It seemed that dramatic to all of us," says John Walter, Agriculture.com cofounder and longtime Successful Farming editor. "We had no preconceptions we'd be doing these things. It was just quite an adventure to be there on the scene when this new communications medium was invented."

It was a time when magazines were the primary source of information for farmers, and the main place for interactivity came in places like the coffee shop, co-op office, or local Extension meeting. In the two decades since, farmers have gone from using the Web and Agriculture.com as a simple way to read the latest news and catch up with the latest trends to integrating the platform and its growing extensions and connectivity into farm life, from simply consuming and managing information and data to putting farm-specific data to use in new ways. In short, to go from seeking help finding a solution to creating their own new solutions.

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"Before the Internet, you read regular newspapers...they had a fair amount of farm news in them. And the Sunday papers often had a number of pages on agriculture, including stories on various how-to topics. We had various seed or input companies who would get you information," says Iowa City, Iowa, farmer Jim Meade, one of the early users of and contributors to Agriculture.com. "Of course, farm magazines were the major sources. Most farmers subscribed to two or three farm magazines and read those pretty religiously."

Now, something that started out as a tool for information sharing and connecting with others has begun to become something bigger to both agriculture and general life in the U.S. and abroad. Who was leading that transition from simple words and discussions to full-blown systems connecting the digital and physical worlds? That's right - farmers.

"We learned collectively that farmers had such richness of information, were so intelligent in what they were doing and so eager to communicate," says Marc Vanacht, president of AG Business Consultants and early adviser to Agriculture.com. "If it hadn't been for farmers saying they were going to become part of the Internet and use it for communication amongst themselves and with their suppliers, I'm not sure the AT&Ts and Verizons of the world would have been doing business in rural America where they were. By adopting the Internet, [farmers] forced companies to expand their offerings."

In the two decades since Agriculture.com's launch, the Web has changed at an unprecedented pace; connection speeds have increased exponentially, as have the number of different tasks – both for paying bills and having fun and everything in between – done on the Web. It's become a digital world in which more of life is led, but in terms of technological and mechanical adaptation on the farm, this isn't really a lot different than the way farmers have operated for decades.

"Your average farmer is highly educated. Farmers are the original geeks, the original engineers," says Brian David Johnson, futurist with Intel Corporation, maker of microchips that have helped drive the computer hardware arc of the last half-century. "A lot of the original engineering colleges were ag schools. Today, most farmers have laptops and smartphones and are using them in many ways. The next generation of farmers and engineers are really the ones who will come up with the genius ideas."

Johnson, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota before beginning his work as a futurist around the time when Agriculture.com was launched, says farmers' role in the development of tomorrow's digital technology – that based on the Internet of today, or the culmination of the last 20 years of development – should not be underestimated. That's even true if you choose not to go with the highest-tech approach to every job on your farm. Instead, it's more important to match the tool – whether old-school or cutting-edge – to the task at hand, be it in the tech world or on the farm.

"Your average farmer is highly educated. Farmers are the original geeks, the original engineers."

"I think one thing we always have to remember is that technology is not in control. It's human beings, farmers who are in control of their farms. It's up to them, just like you deciding if you want to buy a new combine or not, or plant a certain crop or not. For me, it should always be the decision of the individual and of the farmer. It always comes back to us identifying that problem; technology for technology's sake is useless. It's ridiculous," Johnson says. "To me, it's how can we apply these technologies to make our farms better. We have a really symbiotic relationship with our tools. It's always been like that. We've always adapted . . . we've made tools, adapted to those tools, then made new tools.

Over time, the ways precision agriculture systems are deployed and data is gleaned have changed not just how daily jobs are done, but how they fit into bigger patterns and business models. Precision ag – the way farmers use it and how they can access information to better employ it on their farms – is a perfect example when comparing U.S. farms and those in less-developed parts of the world.

"The phenomenon of precision ag was largely driven by farmers themselves using the Internet to get the information wherever they can get it. In Brazil, that is not possible," says Vanacht in describing the difference consistent, widespread Web access and usage can make on the farm level. "They have an absence of high-value electronic media. In that absence, they have to fall back on a paper book to educate farmers about precision agriculture. We don't realize how good we are here and what we have in this country, having that ubiquitous Internet. Here in the U.S., when we have a good idea, we can have it amongst hundreds of thousands of farmers before bedtime."

Why does this matter? The future of the Internet lies just as much in the analog, or physical world as it does in the digital world. Just like the Web's adoption to date, agriculture plays a major role in what's to come. In some parts of the world, the next step to integrating things like equipment automation and big data is already being taken. Take what's happening on large state-operated farms in China: Vanacht, who's traveled the world to advise big agribusiness companies on integrating leading-edge Web and digital technology into their farms says the staggering level at which farms are operating almost autonomously isn't far from reaching the fields of the Corn Belt. In fact, U.S. farmers may be even better at making those systems work than their counterparts in the Far East.

"They have developed, in the last five years, the most advanced integrated package of farm management, decision making, telemetry, and fleet management tools. They have the most advanced system anywhere in the world," he says of one farm in northern China. "They've tested it out on one farm and this year, they'll test it out on 15 farms. Let's say two years from now, in 2016 or 2017, an area equivalent to Iowa or Illinois will be covered by that most advanced system. I have seen things like a 25,000-acre vegetable farm that has a fully integrated network of sensors that measure the weather, has ears and a nose, and can give warnings for insects and fungal attacks.

"But, people in the Midwest will lead agriculture in vehicle management, fleet management, and moving fleets over the landscape. They'll be automating that, making that more reliable. And they'll do that themselves."

Beyond advancements that are creating even more value in high-value agriculture – things like tomatoes, lettuce, and other crops commonly raised in controlled environments like greenhouses – there are innovations based on the Web that are a ways down the road, but will have major ties to production agriculture. A lot of it has to do with how data infrastructure is constructed and managed, basically in ways that build on current technology and tools used in farming and beyond. But remember this term: synthetic biology. It's a field that may one day see crops and other organic material as the new data storage device, or even a new way to deliver life-saving medication.

"Just recently, there was a piece of research done where we had some scientists that took all of Shakespeare's sonnets and half of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream,', encoded it into DNA, printed that out on a carbon printer, then inserted it into a bacteria. Then, they let that bacteria live -- do what bacteria does -- for a couple generations. Then, they went back to that reproduced bacteria, pulled out the DNA, and re-encoded it back into a digital format with 100% accuracy. So, what that means is we're now able to move from the digital to the biological and back again. It means that bacteria was a hard drive," Johnson says. "Researchers have created, inside mice, a swallowable device that allowed the mouse to swallow this device and the chemicals around the outside of the device -- a carbon nanotube -- reacted with stomach fluid, which turned it into a mini projectile that allowed it to inject into the lining of the mouse's stomach some kind of chemical complex. It was able to create a chemical machine. Just like we're able to create physical, digital, and biological machines, we're going to create chemical machines as well."

There will be a challenge as Internet technology unfolds into new mechanisms like these: Keeping the human element. Though tech sectors like artificial intelligence have opponents who decry the technology as being ultimately responsible for the dehumanization of humanity, Johnson says it's actually the human beings behind tomorrow's advanced technology that will make it work.

"The future is built everyday by the actions of people. I think we build the future, but I also think we're responsible for that future. I hear [opponents] saying that we need to be responsible, much like we need to be responsible when it comes to splitting the atom; we need to be responsible with understanding these new tools and what we're going to use them to do," he says. "I think this technology, whether it's the Internet remembering or using artificial intelligence as a tool, will sort of change how we think and learn. It empowers us, it doesn't replace us. It empowers us to be able to change and adapt more . . . to be more human."

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