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Mike Rebbechi

Lecturer in Agricultural Engineering, Charles Sturt University. Riverina,
Wagga Wagga. NSW


This paper is to discuss the changes which we can expect in computer technology over the next 5 to 10 years. For those of you who are regular attenders at information nights and field days, I can hear you saying “I’ve heard it all before”. All that I can do at this stage is to assure you that “so have I”.

I have been to meetings at which the audience was given the impression that:

- the “personal computing revolution” would very rapidly overrun the farmer.

They were told that within a short space of time “most farmers will have a micro on their office desk”.

Like you, I am sure that many of these statements are basically true but, like you, I know that I had better not hold my breath waiting for them to occur.

Equally though, I hope not to sound negative towards farm computing as I believe it has a strong future.

In this paper I do not cover the many success stories of computer use by farmers. We all know of farmers who have used computers for specific purposes to very great advantage.

What I would like to do is to examine personal and farm computing as a technology and to examine where we are in its overall development.

Stages Of Development Of A Technology

I like to think that a new technology (after its initial conception) can be considered as passing through three phases of development:

• initial implementation

• development

o primary development

o secondary development

• general adoption

The Birth Of Personal Conputing

Personal computing was really conceived almost immediately following the development of the first single chip microprocessor in 1970 (20 years ago). It opened a door to an entire new era in technological development.

The Initial Implementation Phase

The initial implementation of personal computing was made by the MITS group in the USA in 1974 (only 15 years ago). They produced a computer called the ALTAIR. It came in kit form and had extremely limited capabilities and was priced at about $5000 (Aust. 1989).

For all its limitations it was an exciting machine because:

• it excited the entrepreneur; and

• spawned many of the developments which were subsequently to occur.

The Development Phases Of Personal Computing

The Primary Phase of Farm Personal Computing

It is in the primary development phase of a new technology that all the “hype” occurs. It is the stage at which the technology becomes accessible to “the crusaders” and to the “get rich quick men”.

In the case of farm computing, this occurred in the period 1977-1981 when the Apple II and Tandy TRS8O machines (amongst others) became available. These were good, easy to use machines which had sufficient power and disk capacity to demonstrate the potential of personal computers for farm management. Unfortunately this type of machine did not have the power to actually do the work.

There was an enormous amount of “hype” around. Companies were pushing hard and many half-truths were being floated around about the usefulness of computers, particularly in agriculture.

Computing was very much the growth area with just about everyone selling them. It was a dreadful tine. When you went to buy a computer you were confronted by a salesman who mouthed all these amazing new words - words many of us had never heard of before.

I remember these salesmen had me in until a farmer friend told me the joke: “What is the difference between a computer salesman and a used car salesman?”, the answer being: “The used car salesman knows when he’s telling a lie

It took me a long time to trust a computer salesman after that and even now I am extremely careful - though the situation has improved significantly.

Many farmers were also being pressured by these salesmen and also by some ot their advisers. I know how they felt. I remember the pressure which was placed on the School of Agriculture early in 1982. We were being told that:

• “All the other colleges have micros”;

• “In two years time.. .every farmer will have one”;

• “your graduates must know about computing”

and so on.

I know many farmers bought computers during this time only to be very disillusioned with the whole exercise. I am sure the rather clumsy introduction of computers into Agriculture is partly responsible for the low level of adoption currently.

The Secondary Development Phase

The secondary development phase occurs when:

• the initial “hype” dies away;

• the developers settle back to a solid, studied development of the technology;

• the support industry matures; and

• the get rich quick merchants depart the scene.

This is a gradual process which overlaps strongly with the primary phase. For farm computing I believe it started in 1981-82 when IBM decided to take an interest in the market. The IBM PC was released in 1981. This type of machine represented a dramatic change in machine power. It could utilise 15 times more memory, could operate almost 5 times faster and was designed to handle much higher disk capacities than its predecessors.

The push towards maturity of personal computing was aided by the decision of IBM not to restrict the “cloning” of its products (mainly by the Taiwanese). The consequences of this decision were that:

• the price of computing equipment fell dramatically;

• computers which were capable of supporting significant programmes became freely available;

• the sheer numbers of IBM clones created a standard for personal computers, a standard so strong that very few of the major manufacturers could afford to ignore it. Today only Apple and Commodore are significant exceptions.

The secondary development stage is still underway but just how far we are into it is not easy to say. My feeling is that we probably have about 10 years of development before the technology matures.

To examine this proposition we really need to look at where we are at the moment.

The Current State Of Agricultural Computing

The Current Rate of Adoption by Farmers

The level of adoption of computers by farmers is very difficult to determine but is obviously quite low. Estimates place the ownership of computers amongst the general farming population at around 4% in America.

It is believed to be even lower in Australia, perhaps only 2% (Dale, pers. comm). It is certainly a long way from general adoption.

The level of adoption by selected groups on the other hand can be quite high. One very interesting survey of farm computer users has been carried out by the Australian Farm Management Society. This Society would represent a group of farmers vitally interested in farm management and would be expected to be amongst the heaviest of computer users. Of the 112 responses, 46% owned a computer. Of the remaining respondents, 15% were contemplating purchasing a machine in the near future.

The fact that computers will eventually become an integral part of agriculture is demonstrated by the fact that 98% of the respondents felt that there was a place for a computer on the farm. This was confirmed by a general survey of New Zealand farmers which indicated that 50% of farmers believed that they would use a computer sooner or later. Certainly these figures also indicate that we are still firmly in the development stage and not yet approaching the general adoption stage.

Current Software Usage

Periodically the DPI in Queensland publishes an Inventory of Agricultural Software in Australia and New Zealand.

An analysis of the number of software packages listed in the 1988 edition reveals that the three big areas of software development have been for the maintenance of financial and physical records and in the decision making areas.

Figure 1. No. of Agric. Software Programs by Operating System

No. of Programs

Whilst this may represent the range of software development it does not necessarily represent a good measure of the way in which farmers are using their computers.

The Australian Farm Management Society survey mentioned earlier revealed that only 25% of those owing a computer actually had a dedicated accounting package. Nearly all those who owned a computer used them for cash book recording, budgeting and planning and for writing letters. Very few were using their computers for recording physical records.

Certainly it is the recording of financial information which is attracting the interest of most farmers and therefore the emphasis by computer salesmen.

Current Hardware Usage

Again using the 1988 DPI Software Inventory it is clear that the great majority have been written exclusively for the IBM clone.

Towards Completion Of The Development Phase

To predict a time scale for the completion of the development phase we need to make sone assumptions regarding the standard of hardware and software necessary to allow general adoption of the technology.

It is my contention that the current range of computers is either too expensive or is not user friendly enough for adoption by farmers at the lower end of the technology literacy scale. Certainly the current range of IBM clones is far from user friendly and the Apple Macintosh types of machines are expensive and suffer from a distinct shortage of appropriate agricultural software.

The present range of personal computers, both IBM and Apple, is limited particularly in storage capacity and memory. It is these limitations which lead to operator difficulties and inhibit the development of appropriate software. Experience has shown that a machine must have a large memory and disk capacity if user friendly programmes and operating systems are to be developed.

So what are the characteristics of an acceptable personal computer for general adoption by the farming community?

In my view it will need at least to:

• have a large memory and an extensive storage capacity, I believe at least 5 Mb to handle appropriate graphics;

• be able to control itself including carrying out its own maintenance procedures. By this I mean it must be able to carry out its own backing up procedures and generally protect the operator from power failures, power spikes and general data corruption.

When the machinery reaches that stage I believe we will start to see a significant increase in the rate at which farmers introduce computers to their fain. However, before it is suitable for adoption by the general farming community (including those at the lower end of the scale of technological literacy) it will need to be able to accept voice input instructions - once it can accept instructions by voice as well as from the keyboard, it will be well on the way towards being really user friendly.

The question really is then how long will it take for these goals to be reached? Adopting the industry rule of thumb that the rate of change is doubling every 5 years, the next 5 years will see as much change as has occurred in the last 10 years.

Over the past ten years:

• memory has increased 10-fold;

• disk capacity has increased 20-fold;

• speed has risen 6-fold; and

• price has fallen to around one quarter.

On this basis we can expect that my first two requirements will be met within 5 years. At that tine the standard run of the mill personal computer can be expected to have:

6 Mb of main memory;

300 Mb of disk storage;

500 Mhz processor speed;

and will be a much friendlier, much more powerful machine.

The trend towards more user friendly and more powerful computers will continue until we can expect that as a minimum in 10 years time machines will have a memory of 10 Mb and disk capacities of 600 Mb. The speed will be blinding. They will be capable of scanning some trained handwritten text and accepting at least a range of voice inputs.

What will happen with cost is anybody’s guess but there is no real reason for the costs to increase significantly. On this basis it is likely that the machinery will be ready for general adoption by the farming community in about 10 years.

So where does this leave us?

I am not suggesting for a moment that a farmer should delay his entry into this new technology - he should not - but he should recognise that the successful adoption of computer technology will come at a cost in either his own time or more directly in consulting costs. Experience has shown that:

• there is a need for the operator to have a good working knowledge of accounting principles to effectively use the current generation of financial recording systems;

• it takes a considerable tine (probably a minimum of 3 months or, say, about 100 hours of time behind the keyboard) to become fully familiar with a new system and a new machine.

The computer industry and the farm advisers have recognised these problems and are tackling then’ on a number of fronts. One of the most encouraging is the move towards utilising farm secretaries to set up the computer systems and to initially maintain the farm records until the farmer is ready to take over.

Examples of this include the system being adopted by the Farm Plan organisation and the Farm Cheque system currently being trialed by the NSW Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. I would commend this approach to any farmer contemplating a move into agricultural computing in the near future.

There are two other points which farmers should recognise:

1. Farm records will often need to span a number of seasons before they are fully useful.

It will not be until the span of the records exceeds the reliable

memory span of the farmer that the records can be perceived as being useful.

2. Discipline is required to enter and record both financial and physical data.

We know the good record keeper delights in keeping records. To him a computer, even in its current form, is an ideal tool to assist him.

The normal farmer, on the other hand, is like most people - “he is human”. Whilst he recognises the advantages of keeping good records he does not particularly like the office work involved in maintaining those records.

When he get into a “record keeping mood” he will collect a lot of data but will, almost inevitably, miss sone vital piece of information which will seriously limit the usefulness of his records. He will often be covered in “dirt” right at the time he should be recording farm data. As a result he will trust it to memory but then forget to record it.

One cannot underestimate the difficulty of consistently recording day to day farm information. I believe record keeping aids are needed. There are some options on the horizon.

The technology of these hand-held computers is developing at a great rate. For instance a “full blown” IBM compatible computer will go on sale in the USA next month:

• it weighs 400 g;

• is about 200 mm x 100 mm x 20 mm;

• can operate on two dry cells for about 100 hours; and

• it will cost about $3000 (Aust.)

It is reasonable, therefore, that in 10 years time it will be possible to have a portable recording device which will:

• be the size of a walkman radio;

• have at least 1 Mb of nemory (about 200 pages of memory);

• be able to accept some trained speech input;

• certainly be able to speak back to you.

I believe they will be ideal record keeping devices. Such a device could, for instance, sit at the lunch table and tell you that you have not recorded any weather data for the last week. It could be programmed to remind you that you have certain activities to perform. It will be able to be an active aid in record keeping.

I an sure it could be an enormous help to those farmers who want to keep records - it will, at the very least, be able to remind you to keep the essential records. You will be able to programme it to “nag” you.


We are still in the secondary development phase for farm computing and accordingly we should not be too concerned about the relatively low level of adoption of computers by farmers.

We should recognise that the machines will become very, very much more powerful and more user friendly over the next 10 years and that this development should culminate in Voice Recognition computers around the turn of the century.

I believe it is also important for farmers to recognise that their records will not become useful to themselves or to the rest of the agricultural community until they span quite a number of years. The sooner the farmer has the data the sooner a computer will become really useful as a farm management tool. The great improvements in machine power and user friendliness will largely be wasted without the farmer’s own data.

Accordingly, I would encourage people contemplating an entry into farm computing toget their feet wet as soon as possible because, whilst we are still in a development phase, those who join now will reap the benefits first. There is certainly no doubt that the only way to gain computer literacy is by actually using a computer. I would caution them, however, to make sure that they have a specific task in mind otherwise there is a danger that the computer will lie idle.

I would also encourage these farmers to utilise the services of Farm Secretaries at least in the learning phase. I would also encourage them to involve their children in the project as they will be very useful in overcoming any fear of the technology.

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