Farmer on header meets information superhighway

Sam and Janet Campbell use the Internet to track down information on weather patterns before cultivating a paddock on their farm at Pilton, Queensland.

Legend has it that Sidney Kidman, Australia's cattle king, built his fortune on information gleaned from manual telephone operators all around the country. The story goes that the wily cattle baron swapped a Christmas pair of silk stockings and box of chocolates with bush telephonists in return for a copy of every telegram detailing rainfall registrations on outback cattle stations.

Kidman understood the value of information and established a hitherto unrivalled network for collecting it. Technology is only just letting us catch up to him but still, all too often, linking technology fails those who most need it. That will change next year with the introduction of a truly international mobile telephone service, but you'll find it costs a little more than a pair of stockings.

Phone, fax, modem...

The trickle of information that started coming out of farm fax machines a decade ago has grown to a flood. Now the Internet provides access to an Aladdin's Cave of information, if you have the strength to explore it, but who knows where to start?

The Kondinin Group, leaders in the field of getting hold of that specific bit of information you're looking for, still offer a 'phone and ask' service. Kondinin charges members $1 a minute (double for non-members) to turn up information on just about anything. You can get the background research on a new alternative farming venture or the latest research data on the new crop you're thinking of growing. Behind the phone call is the Internet and Kondinin's experience in using it to find the best sources of information.

These days your modem can be the link (via the Internet) to anything from a private 60-day weather forecast to a 10-minute delayed call of the Sydney Wheat Futures Market. You can even list your property for sale, but, unfortunately, we still don't have a targeted directory of services available. Where to go (quickly) for the best information is still the question.

Poor phone lines, the high cost of STD calls and the need for a relatively powerful computer (and knowing how to use it) still make many of us wary of the Internet.

The fax machine is still the favoured link to information. As in Kidman's day, we want to know about the weather. The Bureau of Meteorology offers a staggering 270 fax services (fax freecall 1800 630 100 for a complete list), and handles between 100,000 and 150,000 calls a month in normal times, making money out of the information.

Weather, weather everywhere

The Bureau's Helen Pearce says that it has completed a deal with a number of service providers, letting them link weather information via fax to a product they're selling. The tourist industry has been quick to take advantage of the offer (dial a number, and get the ski report and the best accommodation deals in the mountains).

Christopher Gosselin in Melbourne runs the Marketfaxts and Infarmation services that link available information by fax or the Internet. Demand for his faxed information has doubled in the last 12 months and he expects it to keep growing, but not at the same pace as use of the Internet. He provides services for the Sydney Futures Exchange and Vic Grain but also generates information, including a private weather forecasting service that claims 75 per cent accuracy on its 60-day rainfall predictions.

His services appeal because they link information, they do the trawling for you. He describes his Infarmation Internet site as being a bit like the magic pudding, in that it just keeps growing. A feedback system asks visitors to record details of any Web site they find valuable, and he's recently added sections on alternative farming practices, landcare and finance to a home page that already offered linked access to useful farming information in the public domain.

Marketplace in the Internet

Steve Swann, who set up the powerful Rural Press group's Internet home page and who describes it as a 'crossroads of information', is very proud of a recent addition which provides a complete wool sale catalogue report. It provides not just your market results, but anyone's else's you care to search for, and can provide detailed statistical information on such things as wool type by district.

This Internet service has a classified section. Mr Swann admits it still "has a few flies on it", but he's confident that it will emerge as a viable forum for buying and selling. He points to American experience with machinery sales via the Internet as the way of the future, and expects soon to establish bulletin boards where you'll be able to post an advertisement for that hard-to-get part and get a response from almost anywhere.

There's little doubt that the Internet will come into its own for Australian farmers once they use it to buy and sell. Christopher Gosselin suggests that sooner rather than later the rural produce chains, which to date have been wary of the Internet, are going to come face to face with a competitor offering discounted drench or herbicide for sale on the Internet. Once that happens it won't take long for smart producers to master the modem. "They'll come to think of it as just another delivery system," he says.

Already some people have become comfortable with finding the information that's valuable to them and then paying market price to have it delivered via the Internet.

Back to the weather...

In July 1997 the Bureau of Meteorology joined forces with the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and other state-based agriculture departments to launch the user-pays Silo program on the Internet.

It calls on data provided either daily or weekly from more than 5,000 weather stations around the country to provide quite detailed climatic and rainfall information about very specific areas. It's the sort of information that a consultant needs to chart the potential for a new crop in a specific area.

It's a user-pays service with plenty of users. Between its launch in July and November, 10,163 visits were made to the site and 315,999.20 kilobytes of information were downloaded.

It has a competitor, the Queensland Department of Natural Resources Long Paddock page, which also offers very detailed weather information and boasts more than 38,000 retrievals in its first 12 months of operation.

There's still information that's not for sale, at least not to everyone. Mr Swann says that the grain and cotton industries, in particular, guard their marketing information.

Organisations such as the Australian Wheat Board are happy to make general pricing information freely available, but none of the grain or cotton marketeers are comfortable about making what he describes as "real spot prices" available via the Internet or any other system.

Increasingly we're seeing another price put on information: it's being used by companies to buy customer loyalty.

New technology opens doors

Thanks to state departments of education, the high cost of STD calls in the bush is becoming a thing of the past and the problem of poor telephone lines is soon to follow. The push to make on-line computers available in all schools has seen or will see Internet connection for the price of a local call available virtually anywhere in Australia, and this September we're promised a mobile telephone that will work anywhere in the country.

The US-based IRIDIUM© company is already well advanced in setting up a global cellular phone system offering fax and computer connections that will work anywhere in the world, even on an isolated Western Australian grain farm.

The system depends on a constellation of 66 satellites orbiting the earth 420 nautical miles up, capable of picking up a call from a hand-held phone and transferring it from satellite to satellite if necessary to its destination.

IRIDIUM® plans to launch the system globally in September and, once it does, no-one will be out of the reach of a good telephone system. While the IRIDIUM® system will be able to take advantage of existing cellular networks, it can be completely independent of them and so remain unaffected by fire, flood or hurricane.

Perfect access, at a price

The telecommunications industry estimates that by the year 2000 there will be 295 million cellular phone users around the globe. By that time IRIDIUM® expects to be servicing 650,000 of them. So, finally, anyone in Australia should be able to access the mountain of information now available electronically, at a price.

The IRIDIUM® phone is expected to cost around $3,000 along with a rental fee of around $50 a month and the cost of the call. We've come a long way from a pair of silk stockings, haven't we?

Handy poll fax numbers and Web site addresses

All 019 and 190 numbers are costed on each minute used.

  • Market fax including private 60-day rainfall forecast 190 224 2518
  • Weather by fax ... farm weather directory 1800 061 404*
  • Weather by fax ... all services directory 1800 630 100*
  • National warning service 019 725 001
  • 4-day forecast charts 019 725 002
  • Weekly rainfall map 019 725 001
  • Southern oscillation index 019 725 432
  • El Nino explained 019 725 257 (6 mins)

* free call

All weather by fax numbers are expected to change to a 190 prefix in 1998.

Useful grain market numbers

  • SFE 10-minute delayed quote on trading 190 294 1060
  • AWB daily cash prices:

Qld 019 725 670

NSW 1800 241 166

Vic. 019 725 672

SA 019 725 674

Web sites to browse

  • Kondinin Group: Farming Ahead, news, Pro Farmer, search page
  • SILO: very detailed rainfall and weather information
  • Infarmation: real estate, material in the public domain
  • Rural Press: watch for machinery notice board
  • AWB: statistical information, market summaries
  • Sydney Futures Exchange: detailed statistical info

Most sites will provide links with other home pages offering material in the public domain.

Region North