Originally created 05/25/04

Farmers turn to Web for help keeping their businesses growing



CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When Stanley Blunier needs help deciding when to buy crop insurance or how to keep track of his stored grain, he doesn't consult pricey professionals. He jumps online.

The University of Illinois' site farmdoc and others like it help farmers through the pitfalls of their profession in a farm economy that makes it a luxury to hire accountants and marketing consultants.

Farmdoc - an acronym for Farm Decision Outreach Central - is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year.

"It's a very good resource for documents that enhance or help me in my profession. That's one of the first places I'll go to look," said Blunier, who grows 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans and produces about 13,000 hogs per year on his central Illinois farm.

Judging from farmdoc's use - about 4,000 page requests per day - Blunier has plenty of company.

Farmdoc was conceived in 1999 with a desire to provide farmers and others in the agriculture business a single place to find information on farm policy, risk management and production as well as offer tools to help farmers make critical decisions, said Scott Irwin, a professor of agricultural marketing at the university and a co-founder of the site.

From farmdoc's home page, a farmer can check the latest crop market outlook prepared by university specialists, find data on the cost to produce a crop, find information on the state's drainage laws or locate tools to help evaluate marketing strategy.

The site also provides nearly four dozen spreadsheets and calculators designed to help farmers decide such things as how to prepare budgets, analyze equipment investments, evaluate loan options and calculate crop insurance, Irwin said.

The user-friendly tools give farmers a lot of help at a time when slim profit margins mean making the right decision crucial, said Doug Yoder, director of marketing and risk management for the Illinois Farm Bureau.

"Without these tools to assist him, (a farmer) is going to have to hire professional help to make these decisions," Yoder said. "It's a timesaving solution and a money savings advantage to the producer."

Farmdoc, which costs about $100,000 per year to operate, measures its use by counting the number of mouse clicks visitors make after arriving at the home page. It averaged 110,000 page requests per month - almost 4,000 per day - last year, Irwin said.

Farmdoc is one of several university-sponsored Web sites that aim to help farmers. Others include an agronomy handbook for Illinois and weekly bulletins that update farmers on the latest crop diseases and pests.

Seed and chemical companies also have Web resources and online tools for farmers, but the university sites offer unbiased information, said Kevin Steffey, an extension entomologist and editor of the pest management bulletin, which received about 1 million requests last year.

"What we offer different from companies is that our information should be completely objective, not restricted to customer base and not restricted to products," Steffey said.

On the Net:

farmdoc: http://www.farmdoc.uiuc.edu

Pest management bulletin: http://www.ipm.uiuc.edu