In the past few issues, we at Farm Industry News have encouraged readers to consider adopting a high-speed Internet connection as a standard tool for their farm businesses. As part of our series, we asked Shirley and Abe Hodgen to give a high-speed connection a try and then tell us what they learned. Here is their story.
This fall, a high-speed Internet satellite dish lightened Shirley Hodgen's normally busy farm workload and saved her from occasional midnight sessions downloading critical farm management information from the Internet.
Hodgen, who farms with her husband Abe near Roachdale, IN, 50 miles west of Indianapolis, has long recognized that information gathered through the Internet has much to offer their operation. But there was only so much sleep she was willing to give up. And Abe wasn't willing to deal with Internet frustrations at dial-up speeds — period.
“We didn't use the Internet very much at all except for e-mail,” she says. “If there was something we wanted to look up on the Internet, I would stay up to the wee hours when the dial-up service was better and somewhat faster.”
Despite their sense that using the Internet more would be valuable, the Hodgens balked at the cost of high-speed Internet. Last fall, when they began their high-speed experiment, their only option was a satellite connection. Their local phone company's promise that Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service was just around the corner hadn't yet materialized, although that service since has become available. Satellite-based high-speed Internet typically costs $400 to $600 for equipment and installation, plus $50 to $60 monthly in base service charges. (For costs and other details, see “High-speed Internet options,” pages 28-31, December 2006.)
The Hodgens signed up for the satellite system after Farm Industry News approached them with an offer that helped defray equipment and installation costs. When they accepted the offer, which was made in conjunction with Agristar Global Networks (www.agristar.com), they agreed to be interviewed for this story.
They also agreed to offer their insights on Agristar, which includes an agricultural news, weather and markets information package in conjunction with high-speed Internet services provided through its satellite partner, Hughes Network Systems, the world's largest satellite provider. Agristar's basic ag business content, which has a value of $50/month when purchased separately, is included for all subscribers at no additional cost with the monthly satellite fee. The company plans to offer other premium services in 2007.
Now, after about three months with the new service, Hodgen says she uses the Internet daily and finds new and valuable uses for it that she wouldn't have sought out in the past.
“It is well worth $60 a month just for the information that is available to me,” she says. “The biggest thing I have noticed, if we want to get something from the Internet, we can get it right away instead of waiting and sitting up to the wee hours of the morning. It is just a couple clicks away. I wasn't using the Internet to our advantage before. Now I am.”
High-speed Internet also has encouraged her husband to go online. “Before, he did not have the patience for the Internet,” she says. “This has changed it. He actually has gotten on the Internet and used it several times. It is amazing.”
Internet time-savers, moneymakers
The Hodgens began saving time via the Internet almost immediately after their high-speed system was installed. “The second day we had it, we had a new employee and I didn't have a W-4 form,” Hodgen recalls. “I clicked on www.irs.gov and within two minutes, I had printed the form out. I thought, ‘This is going to be nice.’”
Although harvest kept them too busy to explore the Internet extensively, the Hodgens found that a high-speed connection was an important time-saver for day-to-day chores. For example, they used John Deere's parts Web site to keep harvest machinery up and running. They used the site in the past, even though it was frustrating at dial-up speeds.
“Normally, it would take 15 to 20 minutes to get to the correct page for the part we needed,” Hodgen says. “Now I can get to it in three minutes or less. If a part breaks after hours, I can get a printout of the part and a schematic and see if the dealer has it in stock. If he has the part, I can be at the dealership waiting when they open up the next morning.”
In the fall, the Hodgens also harnessed the Internet to help them select next year's seed varieties, plan tiling projects and design changes in their grain-handling system.
“One of the things I just did, which was a pleasure, was to download Purdue University's variety trials results,” Hodgen says. “We are being bombarded by the seed salesman, but we wanted to see how the varieties we planted this year did in the trials. To download that, I would normally stay up to 2:00 in the morning. This year it took me five minutes to download all three sections. It was a joy.”
Hodgen recently used a Web link from Agristar to view USDA aerial maps of their fields to help determine whether the fields need tiling and how tile lines should be laid out. “It took me six minutes to find one of our fields,” she says. “Before, it would have taken me an hour. Every time you would click, it would take a good 45 seconds to a minute for a page to reload with dial-up. Now it is a second or less.”
High-speed Internet also helped the Hodgens uncover a creative grain-handling solution, courtesy of grain-handling equipment Web site. Although they had been planning to buy a drive-over pit, they now plan to design their own system with help from a schematic from one of the five or six manufacturer Web sites they visited.
Hodgen is not sure whether they would have found the schematic with a dial-up connection. “We looked at five or six pits within a matter of minutes,” she says. “In the past, after three manufacturers, I would have said, ‘That is enough.’”
Banking, LPDs and weather
During the winter, the couple hopes to make more use of the Internet for both business and pleasure. Already, Hodgen has surprised herself by exploring online banking. “I would have never thought about paying bills or banking online,” she says. I have started doing that. With dial-up, to get on the banking page, I could have driven to the bank faster.”
She plans to use the Internet to handle Farm Service Agency (FSA) paperwork in the future, including using electronic Loan Deficiency Payments (LDPs). That will easily save an hour for each trip to the county FSA office that she avoids.
She expects Abe, who handles marketing chores, to use the Internet more, too. She notes that Agristar offers extensive marketing information, which will be a good supplement to marketing information they already gather.
“The Agristar link puts us in touch with things that are agriculturally related, like USDA reports, weather and commodity commentaries,” she says.
Agristar's weather links also look like a great help, says Hodgen, the operation's self-described “weather guru.” She and Abe rely on weather radar to manage field operations over their 3,000 to 4,000 crop acres, which are spread over a 25-mile radius, and welcome their improved access to radar and other weather data.
Keeping up with family
Hodgen expects their high-speed Internet connection to help her and Abe keep in touch with their two sons and daughter-in-law. They frequently offer information and advice via large e-mail attachments, which in the past have been cumbersome to download.
The new service also should please the younger-generation Hodgens, because it will save them time as well. In the past when they were home, the Hodgens' son Robert, who is involved in the livestock feed industry in California, and son Paul and daughter-in-law Jennie, who are University of Nebraska graduate students in agronomy and meat science, respectively, occasionally had to drive to an area coffee shop to gain access to high-speed Internet.
“The Internet has become like the telephone to them,” she says. “They need access and they can't stand slow.”
Now that the Hodgens have high-speed Internet, they also have asked their nieces to put them back on the e-mail distribution list for baby pictures. “With dial-up, I had to tell my nieces not to send baby pictures anymore,” Hodgen says. “The pictures could clog my e-mail for an hour.”
Overall, Hodgen says that high-speed Internet has already become valuable for their farming operation, with promise that it will become even more important in the future.
In retrospect, she is amused at the logic that kept the operation from making the investment earlier. “I had no problem paying the $65 monthly satellite TV bill, and we don't even watch much TV,” she says. “I couldn't see my way to pay that much for fast Internet service. I just couldn't realize how much faster and more useful a high-speed connection would be. High-speed Internet has made me more productive. It is well worth the investment.”