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A Year Ago: Europe's farmers begin to embrace Internet

Farmers are gradually taking their agricultural business out into cyberspace

It's often said that some modern farmers are more at home at a PC than behind the wheel of a tractor, but agriculture is one sector in Europe where the Internet has yet to really make its mark.

However, things are changing and farmers in continental Europe are beginning to ask in earnest what cyberspace can do for them.

The European Parliament recently studied new reports calling for new funds to be used to promote Internet use by farmers. Other studies have highlighted huge e-commerce market potential, particularly among younger farmers.

Agricultural groups say there could be big cost savings as farmers seek out the cheapest fertilisers and pesticides from a range of suppliers advertising online. They also see a need for advice and backup services. "I can see great savings in the future for farmers. We have to get our cost base down to compete, and this is one way we can do it," British Euro-MP and farmer Neil Parish told Reuters ahead of presenting the report to the European assembly.

European Commission president Romano Prodi recently launched his "e-initiative," with the aim of getting Internet usage in Europe on a par with that in the United States.

But, according to Bruce Ross, the agricultural consultant behind the parliament report, there has been no mention of agriculture in any of the new Europe-wide initiatives."There's been hardly a word about agriculture in all of this. And the Internet is well suited to farmers, who are small businessmen who often feel isolated and cut off."

"It's not only on the cost savings side, but also advice and information, there's a big market in that," Ross said.

In a separate report focusing on the future of the sector for young farmers in Europe, researchers highlighted a gulf between e-business opportunities and expectations. It is no surprise that farmers under 35 were found to be more Internet-friendly than their older counterparts, but their needs are not being met by what is on offer at the moment.

"There's a great acceptance of the e-business model, and its positive impact, even if the model doesn't actually exist yet," said Philippe Gall, manager for distribution strategy at Swiss agri-biotech giant Novartis Crop Protection, which published the report with CEJA, Europe's young farmers' lobby.

There is, of course, a plethora of Web sites offering information related to agriculture, but according to CEJA President Arnold Puech d'Alissac, farmers don't have the time to surf the net in search of the right deal.

"In the survey, many young farmers showed that they owned computers, and were linked to the Internet. However, few looked to the Internet to do business but many used it as a source of advice," he said.

"The main reasons for this are the lack of available opportunities and also the time it takes to look for this information. There is a clear opportunity to develop e-commerce activities in agriculture."

The report focused on cereals farmers and wine growers, and highlighted differing approaches to the Internet.

Wine growers were found to be more technologically advanced, and willing to use the Internet to reach out directly to customers. Many vineyards were now starting their own Web pages to advertise straight to the public. However, both groups saw real benefits stemming from buying inputs online, although payment security was a common concern.

The reliability of advice and information was another, particularly related to food safety issues. "We clearly need to continue to develop new and better inputs and solutions that will benefit both the farmer and the consumer. But this survey has also shown the need for clear information so that farmers will be able take a decision which will ensure the quality of the final product," Gall said.

Parish's report had a worrying footnote for those wishing to enter the online market, with its emphasis on the younger farmer. The under-35s are continuing to leave the sector in droves, at rates higher than any other age group.

According to Ross, the number of young farmers in Europe dropped from 700,000 in 1990 to just over 500,000 in 1997, a decline of nearly 30 percent. Using admittedly crude economics, he says that if these numbers are sustained, there will be none left at all by 2020.

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