Will the rain hurt the rhubard? 'Log on' and find out

America's traditional small family farmers have newfound leverage for competing with giant "corporate farms" -- from companies like IBM. Outsized agribusiness is still threatening to the small farmers, but they now have an increasingly powerful tool to make up for the larger operators' ability to buy the best advice and to market products nationally and internationally rather than just locally.

Today, even the smallest farmer can "log on" (plug in) to a variety of rapidly growing computer systems designed for his use. The result is that the family farmer or rancher can take advantage of virtually instantaneous computer printouts that speak directly to the individual's needs, no matter how large or small the farm.

The farmer begins by feeding into the computer specific details about his own crops, livestock, soil, acreage, water supplies, and the like. The computer can reply with a wide variety of programs, analyzing the farmer's current operations and spelling out in fine detail just what returns he could expect from various alternate ways of using his land or marketing his products.

One of the most successful of these new computer systems is AGNET (agricultural computer network), launched by the University of Nebraska in 1975. AGNET now is a joint project operated by the states of Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.

George Hartman, who farms and raises cattle in Paxton, Neb., has spent 2 1/2 years introducing the AGNET system to farmers, ranchers, bankers, and agribusiness workers in his area. With his portable computer terminal hooked up anywhere there's electricity and a telephone, he shows his neighbors how the system works. Whether the problem is coming up with the best feed mix for hogs, irrigation rates for crops, marketing strategy, or paying taxes, "It's almost like having a team of PhDs looking over your shoulder as these questions come up ," Mr. Hartman says.

He and other AGNET workers stress the system is a management tool which provides additional help to decisionmakers who once relied on guesswork -- that AGNET does not make decisions itself. Hartman adds: "We can't guarantee that farmers will make money, but we can show them why they are losing money, if they are."

AGNET can run through long lists of alternative programs, often coming up with combinations that either might not have occurred to individual farmers or at least would have taken far longer to work out.

In one case, George Hartman had to find a solution for a farmer who had lost the use of extra land he'd rented for years. How could he make a living on the remaining land? AGNET zeroed in on a "hog confinement system" (raising the animals without using much land) -- and the man is still farming today.

Another farmer needed to know what he could grow most profitably on 200 acres irrigated with one 800-gallon-per-minute well. The answer: 130 acres in corn, with the remainder in wheat. After quickly including 15 years of weather data in the calculations, AGNET reported the farmer could expect an $18 per acre return.

Answers like there are being printed out for more than 1,100 registered AGNET users scattered around 30 states and two Canadian provinces. Through county extension agents, several times that number of farmers make use of the AGNET system.

University of Nebraska Prof. James G. Kendrick, who developed AGNET with his colleague, Prof. Thomas L. Thompson, describes it as "a delivery system" set up "to join modern technology to production agriculture." He expects that user fees of about $10 an hour for computer time soon will make AGNET self-supporting.

Al Stark, supervisor of the program, sees AGNET as a library that greatly expands the information services that land-grant universities have traditionally provided. Its more than 200 separate programs cater to many needs, and new programs are being added continually.

Mr. Stark sees simplicity as the key to the success of AGNET.

If at first farmers are skeptical about the sophisticated addition to their stable of farm machinery. Al Stark says, they are won over quickly when they find themselves cutting their irrigation needs by one-third or saving $5 a ton on mixing feed for their cattle.

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