6 Nov 2008
Dr Anne-Marie Oostveen
I live in a small hamlet north of Oxford where there are no visible blemishes on the God-kissed landscape. The rolling hills, the chocolate box cottages, the fields full of sheep…it all seems perfect. But the breath-taking beauty of the landscape doesn’t tell the story of the hardship of the people maintaining the fields, the fences, the hedges. Many of the farmers who work the land and rear the sheep and cattle haven’t made any profits for the last couple of years. The rising price of meat and eggs in the supermarket is not reflected in their income. Farming is tough business.
At the OII we are interested in the use of the Internet for everyday life. Since I have moved to a rural location I have gotten interested in the advantages of being online for farmers. Now that the necessary infrastructure is available all over the country farmers can log on and use the Internet for both their everyday life and managing their farming operation. Nevertheless, a study by Warren (2004) shows that less than one-third of UK farmers use the Internet for business purposes, with the worst levels of adoption for farms in the cattle and sheep sector. Although the research is somewhat dated, it still shows that there is a far lower rate of Internet use among farmers than in other small to medium-sized enterprises.
There is an online wealth of information for farmers from governmental sites to forums and agricultural magazines such as the ‘Farmers Weekly Interactive’. My guess is that most of the active users of these websites are relatively young. None of the middle-aged and older farmers in my community seem to use the Internet themselves, but this is nothing more than an anecdotal observation. Normally not shy of new technology, and gratefully making use of the latest farming equipment such as state-of-the-art harvest combiners, balers and tractors, using a computer poses somewhat of a problem for the older generation of farmers. I know that many have difficulties with reading and writing and would find using the Internet rather daunting and time-consuming. This brings me to the definition of ‘Internet user’. Is that a person who actually sits down at the computer and clicks around? Or does that also include my 70-year-old neighbour who specifically asks me to find him a DEFRA update on the latest bluetongue situation? Or who wants to know the precise regulations and specifications for building stiles? I am now subscribed to the Animal Health Disease Alert, have a login for the EBLEX Beef and Lamb Sector Company website and receive the Farmers Weekly Newsletter, all on his behalf.
A great help for my neighbour is to know what the daily average UK market prices of lambs are in comparison to his local market at Stratford. The prices of finished lambs and store lambs are readily available on the Net but would prove to be far more difficult to find offline. This ease of finding crucial data (albeit using me as an intermediary) means that he is well-informed and therefore knows whether to take his livestock to market or instead to sell it directly to individual traders. He has only recently discovered these advantages and now passes on the information he gets off the Net to his fellow shepherds and farmers. Luckily, besides showing that Internet use is very low under UK farmers, Warren’s longitudinal analysis also indicates that there is a clear rise in use of both email and WWW. Maybe, before long, my neighbour will be online himself using the Internet to apply for cattle passports or to look at Harvest Highlight pictures.