Wallaces Farmer

Internet connects farms to the world

The web is awash with secondary sources interpreting official USDA reports. Getting reports and data directly from USDA enables you to draw your own conclusions.

Lee Schulz

September 13, 2023

7 Min Read
hands typing on laptop on lap, outdoors
THE WAY TECHNOLOGY WORKS: Knowing data sources and how information flows can help farmers evaluate the quality and reliability of information you find on the web.ArtistGNDphotography/Getty Images

Lev Grossman, American novelist and journalist, said, “If my generation is remembered for anything, it will be as the last one that remembers the world before the internet.”

Some people view the internet and the World Wide Web as one and the same. They are not. The internet provides pathways for various computer networks to communicate with each other. The birthdate of the internet is widely considered to be January 1, 1983.

The World Wide Web, or web for short, is a way of accessing and navigating the internet. The web was conceived on March 12, 1989. It revolutionized the internet on April 30, 1993, when it was released into the public domain.

The web is a portion of the internet. You can use the internet without using the web. Sending an email does not require use of the web. The reverse, however, doesn’t hold true. It is not really possible to browse the web without using the internet.

Many things we do as part of our daily life can now be done over the internet. This includes farming.

Providing access to risk management tools

Farming is inherently risky. Farmers must deal with unpredictable weather, wide fluctuations in commodity prices, volatile input costs, policy debates, geopolitical tensions — and the list goes on. Information flowing on the internet can help farmers monitor these risks by providing real-time access to news, weather and market conditions. Producers employ a variety of strategies and tools to manage risk in production and markets. Often the place to start is over the internet.

Nationally, 85% of farmers responding to a USDA survey reported having access to the internet in 2023. It was the same percentage in Iowa. In 1997, only 12% of Iowa farms had access to the internet. Access jumped to 30% in 1999, 45% in 2001 and 63% in 2007.

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service asks farmers broad questions in its annual June Agricultural Survey. Questions on farm technology usage and internet access were added to the survey in odd-numbered years beginning in 1997. Farmers are also asked about business tasks they complete via computers and the internet. NASS releases the data in the biennial Technology Use (Farm Computer Usage and Ownership) report published in August.

The 2023 Technology Use report estimates are based on survey responses from approximately 14,000 agricultural operations and represent all sizes and types of farms.

Possible pandemic-related abnormality

In 2023, 29% of Iowa farms used the internet to purchase agricultural inputs. That was down from 32% in 2021, but up from 6% in 2001. Agricultural inputs include seed, fertilizer, chemicals, veterinarian supplies, feed, machinery, replacement parts, farm supplies, office equipment, etc. Additionally, 28% of Iowa farms used the internet to conduct agricultural marketing activities in 2023. That was down from 32% in 2021 but up from 9% in 2001. Agricultural marketing activities include direct sales of commodities, online crop and livestock auctions, online market advisory services, commodity price tracking, etc.

The COVID-19 pandemic drove up farmers’ reliance on the internet for various activities. Maybe some of the dip from 2021 to 2023 is simply reverting back to normal levels.

USDA NASS issues about 400 national reports every year. These national reports are complemented by about 125 state reports. The reports provide broad coverage of agriculture, including more than 165 crop and livestock items. For example, cattle inventory numbers are published semiannually. Details on hog numbers, cattle on feed, and production of eggs, milk and meat are issued in monthly and quarterly reports.

In 2023, only 13% of U.S. and Iowa farms accessed USDA NASS reports over the internet. For Iowa, this is down from 20% in 2021 and the smallest percentage since 11% of farms in 2009. The percentage of farms does not speak to the number of acres and/or head of livestock represented.

Web helps secondary sources improve information delivery

The static — and in some cases declining — share of farms accessing USDA reports on the web may be surprising, given that these reports serve as a primary informer of the fundamentals underlying agricultural markets. On the other hand, input suppliers, market advisers, grain and livestock buyers, auction markets, financial institutions and others have all dramatically increased their presence since the web entered the public domain in 1993. Many of those market participants are adept at analyzing data USDA gathers from farmers, gleaning highlights from reports and repackaging information.

This is not new. Radio stations have been reporting grain and livestock price data collected by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) for more than 100 years. Journalists and Extension specialists have been relaying information collected by USDA since the beginning.

Most secondary sources do accurately and reliably report data farmers provide to USDA. Still, farmers could do well to occasionally scrutinize the original reports. Doing so can provide assurance that secondary sources are conveying trustworthy and accurate information and are providing an appropriate level of detail and delivery mode.

More smartphone computing power in farmers' pockets

In 2023, 75% of Iowa farms had a desktop or laptop computer and 80% of Iowa farms had a smartphone. Seventy-three percent of Iowa farms had a smartphone in 2021. In 2023, 36% of Iowa farms owned or used a tablet or other portable wireless computer.

Most people reading this likely use both a desktop or laptop and a smartphone. While some may favor one over the other, mobile websites have become much more user-friendly. The processing power of smartphones now rivals the desktops of the past.

NASS data show 52% of Iowa farms conducted business with nonagricultural websites (e.g., making airline reservations, ordering gifts or services, purchasing tickets for family amusement, etc.) in 2023. But only 21% of farms conducted business with any USDA website (e.g., USDA service center eForms requesting services from Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rural Development, accessing USDA customer statement, etc.) and only 8% of farms conducted business with any other federal government website (e.g., federal disaster relief, etc.). Ongoing efforts by USDA to integrate new sources of data, better collect and use information, and create more user-friendly interfaces should help USDA reach more farmers.

USDA app broadens access

On July 27, 2023, USDA released Version 3.0 of its free USDA Market News Mobile Application (app). The app was first launched in February 2022 and expanded in June 2022. It allows users to search for current and historical reports by location, state or commodity. Users can also add reports to their favorites for easier access, share reports via text or email, subscribe to reports, and share the aggregated data behind reports via email for additional analysis. The app provides real-time notifications when a new report is published.

In 2023, only 20% of Iowa farms accessed other USDA reports and services over internet. This is down from 28% in 2021 and the smallest percentage since 2009 (18% of farms). Again, this is surprising given the free, unbiased price and sales information to assist in the marketing and distribution of farm commodities that USDA AMS provides. Each year, AMS issues thousands of reports, providing the industry with key data. The reports give farmers, producers and other agricultural businesses information to evaluate market conditions, identify trends, make purchasing decisions, monitor price patterns and more.

I challenge you to check out the various USDA reports and see what you are missing.

Improving internet access in rural Iowa to drive innovation

In 2023, 51% of internet-connected Iowa farms used a broadband connection (DSL, cable, fiber optic) while 75% of internet-connected Iowa farms had access through a cellular data plan. Seventeen percent had satellite internet. Only 3% of Iowa farms still had dialup internet. Percentages do not add to 100% due to operators with multiple types of internet access. Expanding access to high-speed internet across Iowa continues to be a priority at the state and federal level.

NASS first surveyed farmers on precision agriculture practices in 2021. The question asked: “In the last 12 months, did this farm or ranch use precision agriculture practices to manage crops or livestock? This would include the use of global positioning guidance systems, GPS yield monitoring and soil mapping, variable-rate input applications, use of drones for scouting fields or monitoring livestock, electronic tagging, precision feeding, robotic milking, etc.”

In 2021, 52% of Iowa farms used precision agriculture practices to manage crops or livestock. This rose to 54% in 2023.

Schulz is an Extension ag economist with Iowa State University.

About the Author(s)

Lee Schulz

Lee Schulz is the Iowa State University Extension livestock economist.

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