Farmers hit the virtual books

ONLINE CLASSROOMS HELP FARMERS RE-EDUCATE

it’s not unusual for farmers to spend some time attending winter seminars and conferences. But some have started upgrading their knowledge base year round, thanks to some new ‘schools’ popping up on the web.

Universities and colleges have been offering distance ed classes online for years. But a farmer looking for industry specific, and homework-free, information used to be best served by grower meetings. Now, thanks to people like Shaun Haney of Haney Farms, a seed production business in southern Alberta, there are a growing number of online resources that cater to farmers who can’t always make a trip off the farm. Haney is the founder of RealAgriculture.com, a site that features ag related news and agronomic information. Haney says the idea behind his crop specific schools was to offer farmers face time with leading industry experts, no matter where they are or what their time schedule is like.

“Our goal here is to provide access to key people online,” said Haney. “Farmers like the idea that they can access the info on their own time, over and over again.”

When he first started the site in 2008, Haney says he spent a lot of time traveling to major farmshows and reporting on their highlights. But by 2009 he was starting to see a need for an offshoot site that focused solely on agronomic information, so he teamed up with some of his agronomist friends and started CanolaSchool.com. The new site featured posts about seasonal pest issues, equipment maintenance tips, and other pertinent information for canola growers. The site’s content always responds to real time, industry wide or regional, problems and offers solutions from researchers and extension workers alike. Haney received so much positive feedback that he launched WheatSchool.com in 2010, then CornSchool.com in 2011, and has announced two more schools are coming this year for soybean and pulse crop growers. Haney says it’s neat that he can offer farmers a diversity of content and provide access to people they may not meet personally, like introducing Western wheat growers to OMAFRA’s Peter Johnson.

“Wheat school has east and west content, which really exposes the grower to experts from outside their region,” said Haney. “It provides a really good cross section of information.”

Haney’s schools offer a variety of formats ranging from short text excerpts to full interviews caught on video. Mark Brock, a cash crop farmer in Chiselhurst, ON, was briefly featured during a Corn School call-in session last fall that reported the progress of Ontario’s corn harvest. Brock is one of an increasing number of farmers who actively use social media. In addition to tweeting about general ag issues and farm specific activities, Brock produces his own blog, and participates in a variety of online forums to keep himself current and his business competitive.

“I find myself watching and learning from these online videos,” said Brock. “I believe they are a useful tool and see a lot of value in what Shaun’s doing with the different crop schools.”

Brock has been a smartphone user since 2008 and he’s quick to respond to digital opportunities to brush up on skills. He says videos make him a more efficient learner since he can work a lesson into his daily schedule, usually in the evening, to save him the time and money it would take him to drive all over the countryside to learn about, say, commodity markets.

Maurizio Agostino, Managing Commodity Strategist for Farms.com Risk Management, a division of Farms.com, gets this kind of feedback all the time as the company’s Market School instructor. Agostino says he used to be a stock trader before entering into the commodities world, where even he was challenged by market volatility.

Working for Farms.com Risk Management, he’s spearheaded a series of webinars over the past year that he hopes have  helped to demystify the markets for farmers trying to keep up with an increasingly faster paced industry.

“I think agriculture is becoming a complicated world,” said Agostino. “I’m just trying to simplify it a little.”

Agostino says his company has been working with DeKalb on the idea of a
back-to-the-basics overview of grain marketing for years but couldn’t be sure farmers would be comfortable with the online format at first. When farmers’ use of mobile internet devices and social media exploded almost overnight, Agostino’s first instructional video was launched. His classes delve into everything from how grain prices are determined to hedging with futures.

In their first year of operation, the Market School video learning series received an estimated 20,000 views and counting. They have even heard from a professor in Iowa who is using the series to teach his ag marketing class says Agostino. 
The secret to success, says both Haney and Agostino, is to keep information simple. As a medium, the internet is gaining momentum and farmers are adopting digital resources at a remarkable speed. Agostino says farmers will probably always rely on a team of experts to some extent and, if they have the luxury of a large economy of scale, will assemble their own teams of agronomists, brokers, etc., to make their farms increasingly more competitive.

But no matter how things continue to change, farmers will always have to be Jack-of-all-trades predicts Agostino, because they will always be the ones who make the final decisions on the farm.

“Farmers need to know a lot about a lot of things,” said Agostino, “At the end of the day, they hold the purse strings, they pull the trigger.” •