European Rural Policy at the Crossroads
Thursday 29 June – Saturday 1 July 2000
The Arkleton Centre for Rural Development Research
King's College, University of Aberdeen
Farmers, computers and the internet in contrasting
areas of the UK: implications for rural
by Martyn Warren
Head of Land Use and Rural Management,
University of Plymouth,
Newton Abbot, Devon, UK
This paper reports on a longitudinal survey of farm businesses in contrasting areas
of England, testing the degree of uptake of personal computers and internet use
over a four year period, and identifying incentives and barriers to uptake of new
information and communication technology. Adoption was growing fast, but was
still at lower levels than in non-farming businesses. To provide additional
qualitative information, a small group of farmers in the South West of England was
equipped with the means of using the internet, and given some elementary training.
These farmers were typical of the region in that most were heavily involved in the
physical work of their farms. After a year, use of internet facilities was generally
very low. The reasons given included limitations in the technology, including slow
equipment and poor telephone lines, and a perceived lack of specialist information.
The most common factor cited, however, was difficulty in matching the demands of
the technology with participants’ established work patterns (e.g. ‘office’ work
performed sporadically, and often late in the evenings).
The paper suggests various possibilities for helping such businesses to exploit the
internet. It puts particular emphasis on the role of social and family influences in
this process, including the scope for social activity in developing use of a solitary
medium, the pressure from children to have and use the latest technology, and the
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role of farm women in business management and farm diversification. There
remains considerable scope for further, sociological, research.
The announcement in March 2000 by the UK Minister of Agriculture of an ‘action
plan for e-farming’, incorporating funding for training development, is to be
welcomed. There remains, however, a huge danger that the desire to cut costs
drives MAFF to move much faster than the farming community can adapt. Simply
providing the facility for electronic mailing, and merely pushing information onto
the web, does not lead to effective communication and dissemination. Before
drastically reducing the access of farmers to local offices, MAFF should study
carefully the potential effects of its actions, and particularly the likely isolation (and
alienation) of sectors such as the cattle and sheep rearers, and of older farmers.
It is impossible, in the developed world of the year 2000, to ignore the exponential rise in
use of new communication technologies, particularly those based on the internet. Those
who have the facilities and abilities rely increasingly on „the web‟ for information and
communication. Even the least familiar with computers and matters electronic are
confronted at every turn by references to websites and email addresses. It is not always
clear, however, even to those who are computer users, whether such development is
universally benign, whether the benefits will be equitably distributed, and whether the
expectations will be matched by the reality.
Nowhere is this more the case than in agricultural and rural business. The new
technologies hold out the hope for farmers of overcoming spatial and other barriers to the
acquisition of information, to education, to effective communication through the supply
chain, to selling produce direct to the final consumer, and so on. Organisations that deal
with farmers see the prospect of being able to improve the coverage of their services
(commercial or otherwise) and/or to rationalise existing services. As an example of the
latter, the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) proposed in February
2000 the closure of nine regional offices, substituting internet-based services (such as
online completion of grant applications) for those currently supplied locally (FWi 2000). In
March 2000, after the Prime Minister‟s so-called „farming summit‟ the Ministry announced
an „action plan for e-farming‟, including pilot projects, research into „e-commerce and e-
communication‟ in the agriculture and food industries, substantial funding for training in
information and communication technology (ICT), and electronic dissemination of research
outputs to the agricultural industry Ministry of Agriculture (2000).
To civil servants, academics, employees of large companies, and others who are
accustomed to on-tap internet services and guaranteed email communications with
colleagues and contacts, these will appear obvious and welcome developments. The needs
of small, owner-managed and owner-worked businesses are not the same as those of the
large corporation, however, and neither are the constraints. Before making blanket
assumptions about the application of ICT in farming, it is essential to investigate patterns of
adoption so far, and to learn lessons from both successes and failures. sector.
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The pros and cons
In rural areas, interest has been most aroused by the potential of ICT to break through
spatial and social barriers: the „death of distance‟. Benefits anticipated include:
Enhanced effectiveness of public sector organisations in providing services through
dispersed outlets, including health services (Rizzolo and DuBois 1994; Kurokawa 1996;
Capalbo and Heggem 1999 ;Bergman 1994) and public libraries (McClure et al. 1994);
Improved access to education and training at a distance, overcoming some of the
problems of location and lack of time in family-run small businesses (Bryden et al.
1996; Delors 1996, pp169 - 175);
Improved communications for individual business owners and managers, relatively or
absolutely isolated from their peers and/or coworkers. This model suggests that ICT
can provide, through e-mail and bulletin boards, a „village pump‟ for the rural
community to pick up tips, to lobby local and national decision-makers, and for general
communication and exchange of views (van der Stichele and Bie 1997);
Provision of an improved market-place for products and inputs, with easily updated
product databases, the opportunity to buy and sell goods at best prices, the ready
location of rarities (such as spare parts for old models of machines) (Harrison and
Williams 1996) and better access to market information (and thus bargaining power) for
small producers (van der Stichele and Bie 1997);
Improved access and terms for business credit (Stenberg and Bryden 1999);
The potential for poorer countries and sectors to „leapfrog‟, making use of the newest
forms of technology without going through the development phases that richer, earlier-
adopting countries have had to go through (e.g. using electronically-mediated distance
learning instead of, rather than to replace or complement, a conventional education and
training system.) (Chaparro 1999 p103)
_Problems and uncertainties
The enthusiasm is not universal. In much of the literature there is scepticism over the
ability of the inhabitants of rural areas to share equitably in the fruits of ICT development.
A major issue is that of adequate telecommunications infrastructure: “…rural areas …
historically … have been at the end of the line in terms of telecommunication infrastructure
investment” (Stenberg and Bryden 1999). Access to the internet in rural USA is much
lower than in urban areas, partly due to the poor quality of transmission: devices used to
enable speech messages to be carried over long distances distort digital signals, and
transmission is slow (Rowley 1999). Liberalisation of telecommunications regulation is
progressing across Europe, and is particularly advanced in the UK. Leaving the
distribution of telecommunications services more to the market, rather than to political
influence, has already concentrated the supply of newer, advanced services in central
business districts of major cities and business parks Cornford et al. 1999 p22), and this
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concentration can be expected to increase over time, to the detriment of rural areas. British
Telecom has recently introduced a double-line digital service, „Business Highway‟ which
increases the capacity (and therefore speed) of existing internet access at the cost of an
installation fee, additional line rental and in most cases some additional hardware.
However, the publicity material states that it is only available to businesses within 3km of
„a suitably equipped local BT exchange‟ – thus excluding the majority of farm businesses.
The costs of telephone services can be greater in rural areas (e.g. in Australia Simpson
(1998); in USA Rowley (1999); in Africa (Kenny 1999 p59), and incomes lower (reducing
power to purchase the necessary equipment and services). One potential consequence is to
increase the already-widening gap between the rich and poor in society: “Although this is
an obvious and pressing problem at the global level, it is also one for poor areas in the
richer counties of the world” (Stenberg and Bryden 1999).
Further concerns arise as mirror images of the potential benefits listed above. The ease of
delivering public services, including health and education, via electronic media may lead to
abuse. For instance it may encourage, in times of shrinking budgets, the use of distance
delivery at the expense of the former conventional methods, without proper evaluation of
their true effectiveness. Opening up the local community to the wider world may result in
neglect of local customs and culture. Gaining access to a global market also implies
exposure to other players in that market: for instance the local cheesemaker can advertise
to a huge market on the web, but by the same token his or her usual customers can explore
a hugely increased range of other quality cheese suppliers. Banking online is convenient,
but is likely to accelerate the loss of bank branches in rural areas. Paradoxically,
„information overload‟ can cause stress on systems and individuals (Richardson 1994;
Stenberg and Bryden 1999).
A study of two areas of rural England in 1993 by a team at Coventry University (Clark et
al. 1995; Berkeley et al. 1996) found that few firms were using or investigating
technology-based solutions to their business problems:
Most firms ... are very small independent concerns. They are too small to have
specialist staff who can make full use of telematics and in any case are unable to
afford the necessary equipment, services and training. Many are presently
experiencing serious difficulties and have uncertain futures. Most technologies and
services are presently marginal to their needs. (Clark et al. 1995, p179)
The authors concluded that there was a need for intervention by local agencies, including
rural development organisations and TECs (Training and Enterprise Councils) in order to
accelerate the adoption of telematics in rural areas. Their survey specifically excluded
farming businesses, which begs the question of whether the same conditions - and remedies
- applied to the agricultural sector.
The University of Plymouth investigation has so far comprised five stages.
Firstly a telephone survey was made of a random sample of farmers in the far South West
of England, (determined by the terms of reference of the funder, the Louise Ryan Stowford
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Trust), to test the degree of awareness and use of electronic media. The survey was
conducted between the beginning of February and the end of March 1996, with 150
farmers being interviewed (93% of eligible contacts). The sampling frame used was based
on the Yellow Pages classified telephone directories covering the counties of Devon,
Cornwall and Somerset: the only reasonably reliable option given the restrictions on using
MAFF listings (Errington 1985).
While the surveys gave some insight into computer adoption, the very unfamiliarity of
internet based media to most respondents made it difficult to test the potential for that
adoption. The second phase therefore employed a series of focus groups, incorporating
some demonstration of internet technology. These groups, seven in all, were convened in
the South West region only, in the Spring of 1996. Three were established farmer groups,
(including a dairy discussion group and an arable/vegetable group), two were extra-mural
farm management classes (Bicton College, Devon, and Duchy College, Cornwall), one was
a pig-buying cooperative, while the final group was drawn from survey respondents who
had indicated a willingness to participate further (Warren et al. 1996). These groups cannot
be reliably assumed to be representative of the farming population as a whole, but were
used to provide qualitative depth to the interpretation of survey results.
The third phase was to replicate the survey during late 1996 and early 1997 in the areas of
Peterborough and Cambridge in the East of the country, chosen for the maximum contrast
of farming types to those typical in the South West. 129 useable responses were obtained,
representing 72% of eligible contacts (Warren et al. 1997). The lower response rate was
felt by the interviewer to reflect the larger business size and more professionalised farming
in the East. Whereas the South West initial contacts were primarily with the business
principal, the Eastern Counties contacts were often with office staff, who were sometimes
unwilling to pass the call on to the business owner (the target respondent).
Comparison with 1998 June Census data suggests that the survey samples fit closely in the
East with respect to farm type, while in the South West sample dairying is slightly over-
represented at the expense of mixed farms. In both regions the smaller categories of farms
are under-represented: this is a known consequence of using Yellow Pages as the sampling
frame (see Errington 1985; Burton and Wilson 1999). With these caveats, the samples may
be regarded as being reasonably representative of the two areas: it would not be reasonable
to extrapolate to the UK as a whole, however.
The fourth phase involved the establishment of a one-year trial within a farmers‟ potato
production/marketing group in Devon, South West England. An established group was
chosen in the hope that this would give some opportunity and incentive for inter-farmer
communication, and mutual support. The choice of group was dictated by the need to find
a reasonably coherent set of farmers who already had computers to which modems could be
fitted, and who had at least an initial enthusiasm for the project. Of the 22 members of the
group, eight agreed to be supplied with subsidised internet facilities (modems were
supplied free of charge: members agreed to pay for the running costs of service provider
fees and telephone charges for a minimum period of six months). One member of the
group was not a farmer, but represented the family business which coordinates the group
and its marketing. This business was the only one that already had a modem and internet
service provider, but replaced these with those supplied through the project in order to be
consistent with the rest of the group.
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The fifth and most recent phase involved administration of a repeat telephone questionnaire
to the original 277 survey respondents in December 1999 (i.e. three years after the first
survey). The questionnaire contained many questions which were identical to the original
questionnaire, but some (e.g. „Have you heard of email‟) were eliminated on the grounds
that they were now trivial, and the opportunity was taken to refine some questions and add
The response was 64% of the original sample (177 respondents). 13% of the sample refused
to participate, and 6% proved inaccessible due to changed telephone numbers, etc. The
remainder had gone out of the farming business: 6% had retired, 2% had sold up and/or
were renting out land, and 6% had businesses still, but not in farming. There was no
significant association1 between non-response and region, or between reason for non-
response and region, and it is reasonable to conclude that the new sample reflects fairly the
makeup of the original. The 1996 data is adjusted to remove non-responders to the 1999
questionnaire where appropriate to ensure an identical sample for comparisons over time.
Patterns of adoption
Results of 1996/7 survey
The first two surveys (in the South West and East of England respectively) were reported in
full in Warren et al. (1996) and Warren (2000). Farm size ranged from under 40 hectares
to well over 480 hectares (ha), the median being around 200 ha. There was a significant
tendency for smaller farms to be managed by people with lower educational qualifications.
In the South West, 21% farms were above 160ha and 18% below 40ha: In the East, 46%
were above 160ha, and only 9% below 40ha.
The South West sample was dominated by livestock farming, with 58% involved in dairy
production and 25% mainly sheep and cattle, while 68% of the Eastern sample were
specialist arable producers. 54% of specialist arable producers had tertiary education
qualifications, while 74% lowland cattle and sheep producers had none. 72% respondents
obtained 90% or more of their income from farming. There was no significant difference
with respect to age (median age was around 44 years, with 73% being between 30 and 59,
and 24% being 60 years or over), but in the South West, only 39% respondents had had
some form of tertiary qualification compared to 52% in the East.
Respondents were asked about their use of various forms of technology as aids to the
management of their businesses, and their purchasing intentions (see Figure 1). Differences
between regions relating to use of television, fax, computer, modem, email and internet
were significant. Some of this variation could be due to the lapse in time between the two
surveys, but the greater part is likely to be due to geographical influences, which in turn
reflect differences with respect to farm size and type (see the 1999 results below).
1 Throughout this paper, differences between subsets of variables are reported where they are
significant at p<0.05, using the Chi-square test.
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Results of 1999 survey and comparisons over time
Like all such investigations, the 1996/7 surveys are open to criticism. In particular they
focus on two contrasting areas, rather than areas which are demonstrably representative of
farming in the whole of England, or the UK. Since more English regions resemble the
South West than the Eastern Counties, there may be an upward bias in the aggregated
results, necessitating caution when extrapolating beyond the specific areas concerned. This
is not a major limitation, given that the pace and pattern of change are rather more
interesting than absolute levels of adoption, and that any bias will apply equally to the data
from both years.
Not surprisingly, use of ICT has risen across the board by 1999, with a modest increase in
use of personal computers (PC) as a management aid, but use of email rising from 7% to
36%, and of WWW from 10% to 36% (Figure 1). 81% had Pentium II or III processors,
the remainder being 486 or 386 machines. Regional differences in use of PCs have
narrowed to the point where they are no longer significant, but still remain large in use of
internet (Table 1).
Figu re 1: Use of ICT as manageme nt aids
% all 40 36 36
respondents 1996/ 7 (%)
30 1999/ 2000 (%)
10 5 6 6
fax compute bank emai WW
r link l W
_________________Table 1: Changes in use of PC and internet, by region
South West En gland Eas tern England
1996/7 1999/00 1996/7 1999/00
% (N=97) % (N=73)
Computer 41 56 60 63
Email 2 26 12 47
WWW 2 27 12 47
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Use of personal computers
Use of PCs in management is still strongly associated with farm type and size (see Figures
2 and 3), and with educational attainment and age of the respondent (Figures 4 and 5).
There is also a significant association with the presence of another computer user in the
family , but it is impossible to say whether this is cause or effect.
Figure 2: Use of PC as a management aid by Figure 3: Use of PC as ma nagement aid by
type of farm (%all respondents) size of farm
90 86 90 % all 19 96/7 86
respondents 1996/7 respondents 19 99/20 00 79
60 55 60 54
40 38 39
33 40 34
mainly dairy dairy and arable mainly arable cattle and sheep
less than 80 80 t o 159 16 0 to 31 9 32 0 and over
Figure 4: Use of PC as management aid Figure 5: Use of PC as management aid
by education by age
% all respondents
% all 80
80 res po ndents 80
19 96 /7
70 19 99 /2 00 0
70 65 67
60 60 56
50 41 50
30 26 30 24 24
s ch ool on ly po st-scho ol
<40 40-49 50-59 over 60
The main uses of the respondents‟ current computers are shown in Table 2, compared with
the original reason for purchase. As in the original survey, there is an apparent migration of
some computers originally bought for educational use towards general business use and
farm management. Reasons given by non-users of computers for not buying are shown in
Figure 6, and compared with answers to a similar question in the 1996/7 survey. Mentions
of lack of knowledge and comprehension had fallen from 57% of non-users to 25%,
coupled with a substantial increase in those who regarded themselves as „untrained and too
old‟. Issues relating to cost, profitability and farm size had also risen considerably: this
reflects on one hand the dramatic fall in farm profitability in the UK from 1997 onwards,
coupled with the fact that rises in computer specifications had counterbalanced price falls in
basic components. 16% of those who were not currently using a PC were intending to buy
one within the next two years.
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Table 2: reasons for purchase and current main use of PC, 1999/2000
Main reason for purchase Main current
(% responses) use
Upgrade 41 – –
Education - children 11 19 9
Education - self 4 7 3
Accountancy 14 23 31
Farm Management 19 32 33
Word processing 10 18 24
Other 1 2 0
Figure 6: Reasons for not buying a computer
Use of internet
Lack of kno wl ed ge
Ot her 11
Un train ed and to o ol d 41
To o b usy to in pu t dat a
To o exp en si ve
Own er refus es
% non-users 1999/2000
24 % non-users 1996/97
Farm to o s m l
Profi t i ns uffi ci en t
Fear of t he u nfam li ar
0 10 20 30 40 50 60
% non -u sers
Of the computer users (59% of respondents in 1999/2000), 66% had access to internet
services (38% of all respondents), and another 21% intended to start using internet
services in the next two years. 55% of computer users were currently using email/WWW
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in their businesses2. Arable farms were more likely to have internet access, and cattle and
sheep least likely: large farms more likely than small (Figures 7 and 8). There was no
significant association with proportion of income derived from farming. Awareness of
email/WWW had increased substantially amongst all respondents since 1996/7 (Figure
11), but still only 15% of PC non-users had seen a demonstration of one or both, and only
38% knew of someone using email/WWW. Ability to see benefit in using email had
risen from 27% to 47% of all respondents, and in using WWW from 21% to 48% (28%
among computer non-users). Ability to see benefit was positively associated with post-
school education, low age and large farm size (but not with farm type).
Figure 9: Use of email/WWW in the business Figure 10: Use of email/WWW in the business
by by type of farm (1999) size of farm (hectares, 1999)
80 77 50
% all 50 % all
respondents 40 39 30
30 27 20
less than 80 ha 80 to 159 ha 160 to 319 ha 320 ha and over
mainly dairy dairy and arable mainly arable cattle and sheep
Comparisons with other sectors
As noted earlier, the prime interest - and reliability - of these surveys lies in comparisons
of identical samples over time, to study changes in level and pattern of use. Moreover
the rapid growth in internet use, coupled with differences in sampling and data collection,
can make comparisons between surveys risky. One of the best general comparisons is
provided by an ongoing benchmarking study conducted by National Opinion Polls on
behalf of the UK‟s Department of Trade and Industry, under the auspices of the
Information Society Initiative (Department of Trade and Industry 1999). Some of the
1998 results are presented in Table 3, with the addition of selected figures from our own
survey. Comparison of the latter with the overall UK results suggests the agricultural
sector lagging significantly, although this is moderated when comparisons are made with
UK microbusinesses (less than 10 full-time equivalent employees).
Taken at face value the latter suggest that farm PC ownership is close to the average, and
that use of internet technology is more advanced than in UK microbusinesses as a whole.
Allowance must be made, however, for the lapse in time between the two sets of data (a
2 Responses to questions relating to level of WWW use were almost identical to those concerning
email use, so the latter are used to represent both.
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year is a long time in internet development). Moreover the under-representation of
smaller farms and the high representation of larger, arable-based farms in the Eastern
Counties is likely to bias the farm survey figures upward to some extent. The benchmark
data itself is selective, being based on just eight sectors3, but the nature of any bias that
might result is impossible to deduce. Allowing for these factors, it is reasonable to
suggest that ICT adoption in agriculture does not exceed that in microbusinesses as a
whole, and may indeed be less. Moreover, the question is begged as to whether number
of employees is the appropriate measure of size in this case: the levels of turnover and
asset value in most of the farm businesses, for instance, would make them more
comparable with the „small‟ business category, where levels of adoption are considerably
greater than in microbusinesses.
Table 3 Comparisons of ICT use
internet external se lling
PC owned access webs ite email online
All companies (%) 93 62 51 72 9
Microbusiness es (les s than 10 employees) 62 23 10 25 2
Plymouth farm survey
Aggregate 59 38 36
South West 56 30 27
Eas t 63 48 47
Cattle and sheep farms 33 10 10
Farms les s than 160 hectares 44 23 18
1. ISI figures do not include farming businesses.
2. ISI percentages are weighted by the number of employees in the surveyed companies.
3. Low French internet figures conceal the well-developed use of an alternative telematic medium,
Minitel (Waksman and Harkin 1999; Lacroix et al. 1997)
Source: Department of Trade and Industry 1999
ICT in practice
In 1996/7, the very unfamiliarity of internet-based media to most respondents made it
difficult to test the potential for adoption, and to identify the main barriers to uptake. The
use of a series of focus groups, incorporating some demonstration, was an attempt to
overcome this problem. The main issues initially perceived by group members were
slowness of response, unreliability of searching process, and cost of operation (see
Warren (2000)) for fuller details). These views were formulated after only a very short
3 Advertising, insurance, retail (excluding food and drink), road haulage, chemicals, clothing,
defence and aerospace, vehicle components.
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acquaintance, and to gain some insight into use of the internet in practice, a case study
investigation was set up during 1997, as described in Methodology above.
In the group of eight participants, farm sizes ranged from 80 to 320 hectares, all with
arable enterprises, three with dairy herds and one with outdoor pigs. One ran a golf
course as a second business. All the farmers were active in both physical and
management work in their businesses. Three were below 30 years of age. Five had some
form of tertiary education qualification. Three had had some form of tuition in use of
computers, either within their education or as a training course. Some technical backup
was supplied by the service provider: other help, including some on-line assistance,
tuition and management of bulletin boards, was provided by the University of Plymouth.
The process involved an introductory meeting with the group, a „check-up‟ meeting a
month later, and a final interview of each participant at the end of 12 months (May and
June 1998). A „control‟ group was formed from nine non-adopting colleagues of the
user group, but the interest of this group proved difficult to maintain, and little use was
eventually made of it.
The final monitoring was conducted through the medium of semistructured face-to-face
interviews in May and June 1998, at the end of a year when potato prices, as well as those
of every other mainstream agricultural commodity, had suffered badly, with a consequent
fall in morale and enthusiasm throughout the industry.
Current use of internet facilities
By the time the interviews were conducted, three of the eight participants were no longer
using the facility, one having stopped soon after the second training session/meeting. Of
the remainder, four were still connected but making only sporadic use of the internet and
one, with substantial commodity trading interests, remained a regular (but still not
frequent) user. Asked about the pattern of use, several described their use as „dabbling‟
or „playing‟, and heaviest during the winter evenings. Most had terminated or run down
their use as spring field-work built up: in one case the cost of the service provider (£11-
12 per month) had been a deciding factor.
In at least two cases, computer-literate offspring were major influences in getting started.
Although several valued the support given through the project, the perceived influence of
the group itself was variable. A significant factor was the infrequency of meetings of the
group, and the dominance of those meetings by more pressing business (coupled with the
fact that not all the marketing group members were participating). The group was
insufficiently specific, and insufficiently inclusive, to be truly effective in the context of
On the positive side, participants found very few difficulties in setting up, and those
which did arise were rapidly dealt with by the service provider, Virgin Net. There was
little need for the extra technical support on offer from the University of Plymouth.
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Use of email
Use of email within the group did not get established effectively, and the most common
purpose mentioned was social communication - contacts with friends and relatives
overseas, or in organisations where email is in common use. Telephone and fax were
generally felt to be more useful for business. Again the influence of offspring was often
“My children use it quite a bit, and all their friends that come here are all into it,
and they‟ve all got hotmail and things like that... quite often my daughter comes
in here [farm office] and reads her email, and says, “Dad, you‟ve got one!”
because I haven‟t bothered to look.”
Use of WWW
The most common use mentioned for WWW was to check the weather forecast, using a
Washington Post site (shown at the launch of the project). This was generally used only
if the Sunday BBC TV farming forecast had been missed, however. Some had
considered subscribing to the Meteorological Office service, but felt they were better (and
more cost-effectively) served by the fax service provided by the same office (paid for by
the request, rather than for a blanket service). Other sites investigated included suppliers
of machinery, agrochemicals and other inputs. Participants often felt daunted by the
sheer scale of the information available, and were not confident about using features such
as search engines or bookmarks. Some had seen demonstrations of the subscriber-only
services of Farming On-Line and FWi, and/or explored the latter‟s free pages, but were
deterred by the cost of the subscription-only services and the difficulty of seeing a way of
making them cost-effective given the scale of their farming operations.
Difficulties in use
One of the major difficulties encountered was that of fitting use of internet into the work
and social patterns of the farm. Most described their use of the computer as very irregular
and infrequent, with the computer switched on only when a specific job needed to be
done (often by a farm secretary visiting once a month to do the accounts). This made it
extremely unlikely that the internet would the first medium considered for either
communication or information.
Another significant problem was the slowness of the service. This is partly due to the
fact that many rural areas in the UK still had low-grade telephone infrastructure, but a
major influence remained the speed of the computer. Most of the participants were using
486 computers at the beginning of the project, and although relatively modern in UK
farm management terms, they could be painfully slow in accessing WWW pages. One
farm started with a Pentium machine, and two others upgraded to Pentium later, but
access speeds could still be low. This is accentuated by the typical pattern of use on a
working family farm; farm management, paperwork, and use of the computer tends to
take place in the evening, when the WWW is at its slowest due to a combination of
business use in the US and recreational use in Europe.
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Where email is concerned, several participants pointed out that it was far quicker and
easier to walk into the office, write (rather than type) a fax, and send it, than to wait for
the computer to boot up and the email program to load, and then laboriously type a
message with two fingers. Most also preferred receiving a physical entity in the shape of
a fax message (whose arrival was very obvious, and which could be read over a meal and
then filed) to an electronic message whose arrival was unannounced until the computer
was booted up. A related point was that most people in business now have fax machines,
but the same assumption cannot be made about email.
Participants were asked to suggest improvements that would firstly persuade them
personally to use internet services more in the future, and secondly would help to
improve takeup by farmers in general. In fact, it proved difficult to distinguish between
the two. The most common responses concerned speed, specificity of information,
training, and commitment within a particular group or groups of people.
The point about speed has already been made above: there were very strong feelings that
unless response times could improve, most potential users would be deterred. Upgrading
of computers will help, but given the slow rate of adoption of computers in the first place
in UK farming, and especially in less prosperous areas such as the far South West of
England, it will be a long time before fast machines become commonplace. Improvement
of telephone lines in rural areas will help, but again is a gradual process.
Many made the case for providing more information that was of direct use to them. This
is partly a matter of provision that is „farmer-friendly‟ (rather than in the form most
convenient to the provider – usually a large private corporation or public body whose
employees are remote from the needs and working practices of family farmers), partly the
provision of up-to-the minute information (e.g. potato blight warnings), and partly
making more of local and regional identity. The latter may seem ironic, given the global
nature of the medium, but farming business and society are strongly affected by locality,
and credibility of management information is reduced if local influences are not reflected.
One suggestion was that of a „virtual farm open day‟, playing on the penchant of farmers
for „looking over the hedge‟ to see what the neighbours are up to.
A related issue is the need for foolproof navigation aids to help find the information that
is available, somewhere, on the WWW. At the time, the main opportunity open to UK
farmers was Farming On-Line. FOL, then a subscriber-only service, attempted to provide
a „one-stop shop‟ for farmers, but at a price that many smaller-scale farmers were
reluctant to pay – especially in a disastrous year for farm incomes. Little use had been
made of Farmers Weekly Interactive (FWi), and alternative website with some free
WWW pages, but this might be because they were in an early stage of development when
the project started.
It became clear during the interviews that a more intensive training programme would
have helped farmers deal with some of the problems, although it is less clear whether all
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the participants would have taken the opportunity even if funding had allowed it. If
nothing else, a further reminder session on the use of search engines (including ways of
refining searches) and bookmarks would have saved some frustration.
Another common theme was the need for incentive for farmers to use internet. This
could be through the provision of services they could not afford to be without - and that
could not be supplied better or more conveniently by fax, journals, etc. Another driving
force, particularly for email, would be provided by the existence of a group who had real
financial incentive for rapid communication, including transmission of data files, and a
commitment to internet as the primary mode of communication.
The one farmer who did see a commercial potential in his own use of the WWW was,
ironically, deterred by the possible positive response. His growing business in packing
and marketing high quality home-grown pork was still of a scale which he could manage
easily, and maintain a personal service to people in his area. However, in the face of
plummeting pig prices, he has since taken the plunge, and now trades successfully on
Comparison of the survey data with ISI benchmarks suggested, even taking account of
the caveats expressed in earlier, that adoption of ICT in the UK farming sector lagging
behind that in other sectors. Moreover the adoption of ICT in farming is unevenly
distributed, with smaller and livestock farms lagging behind larger and arable farms.
Though the case study results are specific to the small group involved, and antedate the
most recent survey, they imply various possible reasons for the lag in agricultural
adoption in general, and in uptake in specific types of farm business:
Lack of funds, especially those generated from profits, linked with
Perceived cost (both capital and running);
Time demand – both amount and pattern;
Technological barriers (poor quality rural telephone lines, inadequate
Good existing (and often cheaper) means of communication and information
Lack of confidence and/or lack of specific skills;
Off-putting medium: dull, passive presentation of some industry-specific
Lack of strong „pull‟ created by external dependencies, business or otherwise
For some farmers, limited business opportunities constraining need for
services, both within farming (for instance for a marginal beef and sheep
farm) and outside (i.e. little scope for income diversification).
Does a low and slow uptake of internet services really matter? In the short term,
probably not: agriculture is well served by conventional information services, and the
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communication needs of most farm businesses are adequately met by phone, mail and
fax. But it is arguable that in the longer term the competitiveness of UK farming as a
whole, and of certain types and sizes of farm, will be compromised. In a world where use
of ICT is generally well established as a communication medium (via email and video-
conferencing, for example), as a primary information source (e.g. via WWW), and as a
vehicle for transactions, (e.g. online banking and internet shopping), there is a likelihood
that businesses working outside this system will lose competitive edge. In the UK,
MAFF proposes to reduce regional offices and to deal increasingly with grant
applications and other transactions via the electronic communications, raising concerns
that „non-wired‟ farmers will have to pay fees to third parties to submit subsidy forms
(FWi (2000)). Conventional sources of information may in time be phased out in favour
of WWW, or become more expensive to obtain.
Competitiveness (and thus often survival) relates to a business‟ ability to adapt, which is
in turn influenced by awareness of opportunities for development, and for reducing input
prices and transaction costs. These will be negatively influenced by lack of information
and training about business management, advance warning of risks, opportunities to share
ideas via bulletin boards with farmers world-wide, and so on, making for a less effective,
responsive and dynamic farm business sector.
Improving rural telecommunications
Given a privatised or semi-privatised telecommunications industry, such as exists in the
UK, the US and much of mainland Europe, it is difficult to be optimistic about the rate of
improvement in rural areas (Grimes 1992 p17). The high investment needed in
infrastructure reaps its best returns where there is a high density of users, and there is
little incentive apart from the somewhat blunt instrument of regulatory pressure for
companies to pay attention to rural areas. Rowley (1999 p7) discusses (in a US context)
the possibilities of increasing the leverage of rural communities by establishing „rural
area networks‟ or RANs, allowing rural users to exert greater pressure, concentrate
demand, and share costs of specialist hardware. He also alludes to wireless technology,
although he is pessimistic about its potential in the US due to restricted bandwidths and
cost of technology. This may have better prospects in the UK where, unlike the US, the
great majority of land surface is covered by mobile telephone networks. The UK
government has recently auctioned the rights for a greatly increased range of frequencies
to mobile telephone companies, bringing the prospects of receiving video, music, and fast
internet access to mobile users. It is possible that this can open up improved
telecommunications access to rural users – at a price.
A key barrier to adoption of internet services is the low ownership of appropriate
hardware. Although prices of computer hardware and software have fallen significantly
recently, the increasing specifications required to cope with growing sophistication of
function and process have served to maintain the initial investment required. Internet use
alone may be insufficient incentive on its own for the acquisition or upgrading of a
computer, but there may be hope in some cases for collateral adoption. This may arise,
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for example from other business uses (such as the acquisition of a new
accounting/recording package needing powerful processing capability), though this is
more likely on a dairy or arable farm than on a beef and sheep farm, and will thus
exacerbate differentials in adoption. Another, more universal form of collateral adoption,
that of family acquisition of a computer which can be used for business purposes, is
In the past, the concept of the „telecottage‟, or communal ICT facility, has been promoted
as a solution to problems of lack of suitable equipment in rural areas (see, for instance,
the „Rural White Paper‟, Rural England (Department of Environment and Ministry of
Agriculture 1995, pp 59-61). Recently the Council for the Protection of Rural England
called on the UK government to fit up every village in England with an IT kiosk (Driver
2000). In recent years, however, there has been a resounding silence concerning the
effectiveness of such schemes, and what evidence exists suggests that, despite being one
of the most popular type of local telematics initiative in the UK, few have been successful
and sustainable (Cornford et al. 1999; Grimes 2000). To advocate their replication
without reference to objective evaluations is misguided and irresponsible. Provision of
hardware alone without substantial and sustainable user support will guarantee failure,
and in any case the availability of hardware is usually much less of a barrier than the
human issues described below.
The „training‟ given as part of our case study was rudimentary, and confined to use of
email and WWW, taking for granted an ability to operate the computer. The latter
assumption proved unfounded in some cases: many farm computers are used solely for a
specialist farm accounting and recording package, often used primarily by a visiting farm
secretary. Even where the farmer or spouse operates the package, he or she may have
learned (quite rationally) only those procedures necessary to do that particular job.
Building confidence and skill is, then, a crucial factor. It can be tackled in various ways,
including the conventional computer course run at the local college. Not everyone seeks
out, or responds favourably to such formal training, however, and more informal, group-
based approaches may be more appropriate. A group of committed individuals, with a
real incentive for use of the internet (e.g. for mutual trading purposes, or as the basis of a
quality group), would benefit from a programme of training and mutual assistance, as
long as the members were prepared to regard the activities as high priority, and deserving
of frequent meetings with a professional facilitator. This would have the added
advantage that an active group provides its own critical mass for email communication -
to which can be added other individuals (or groups) in due course. It creates its own
„virtual community‟ (see below). A group can stimulate learning by a mixture of
collaborative discovery, mutual „goading‟ and protection from ridicule. Projects
incorporating informal group learning include Agrinet, which uses minibuses equipped
with laptops to introduce farmers in South West England to the internet in situ
(www.agrinet.org.uk), and the South West Agricultural and Rural Development
(SWARD) project which links small groups of rural business people to a central
information and support „hub‟ (http://www.project-sward.com/).
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In the longer run it is not just ICT-specific training that is important. Mitchell and Clark
Mitchell and Clark (1999) highlight the positive impact of managerial ability and
entrepreneurial attitude in the adoption process. Although not all entrepreneurial
attributes can be taught, it is clear that training in business management has a valuable
role to play, if only in the development of understanding of the potential of ICTs and how
to exploit them (including buying-in expertise where appropriate).
It is possible that providers of internet-based services can help further by working more
with farmers, to see how they work, and what they need: if they are hoping to reach
farmers across the spectrum of farm types and sizes, it will be in their own interests to do
so. In reviewing websites of agricultural companies and organisations, it is impossible to
escape the conclusion that many are conceived as dumping-grounds for information
rather than as mechanisms for actively engaging the user. This is a classic example of
product-orientation rather than market-orientation, or what Grimes (2000 p20) refers to as
„technological determinism‟ – provision shaped by the mechanism, rather than by the
needs of the end user. A study of ICT use in European small businesses by Ilbery and
Clark (1995), concluding that the largest barrier to adoption was user-resistance, suggests
For successful applications, system developers must recognise that most business
people have had little training in information technology and may indeed be
techno-phobic. Applications must work in ways that small businesses find natural
and not alienating, and so are easy to use. There are few examples of this success
with telematics technology among SMEs. (p66)
This theme is echoed by Parker (1999) albeit with respect to decision support systems
rather than internet:
[systems are unlikely to achieve their potential] unless they are developed in
conjunction with those they are intended to serve, the farmer and the adviser. It is
important therefore that the intended users are invited to participate in the creation
of new systems.... (p287)
An example of such participation is provided by the Danish Agricultural Advisory
Centre, which set up a „usability lab‟ in 1996 in order to test extensively their farm
management software with farmers and advisers, with apparently positive results for all
participants (Sepstrup and Jorgensen 1997).
In their study of small rural businesses in middle England, Mitchell and Clark (1999) find
…strong evidence that many firms adopt ICT principally to conform with the
requirements of their customers and suppliers. Firms which have many markets
and sources among companies, especially major companies, elsewhere in the UK
and abroad are under greatest compulsion to adopt. (p451)
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The same is no doubt the case in agriculture, and indeed echoes the comments of the
potato trader in our case study results. Though only a small proportion of even larger
farms would currently have such strong external pressure, it is likely that the increasing
emphasis on supply-chain management, quality assurance and traceability will draw some
farmers into the fold as they and their customers seek to reap the benefits of rapid
electronic feedback via internet and electronic data interchange (EDI) (see, for instance,
Schwaer et al. (1999 107-111) on quality assurance in egg production and marketing).
Positive pressures for use will undoubtedly include the opportunity to submit grant
applications, census returns and other official forms by email. The indications are that
the ability to apply for „cattle passports‟ in this way, for instance, is already acting as
such a driver for some UK farmers (Offer et al. 1999 79-83).
A major incentive for those farmers who can produce goods and services with distinctive
characteristics (e.g. speciality foods, tourism attractions and facilities, consultancy and
advice) will be the opportunity for „e-commerce‟, selling their wares to a global market.
Early UK examples include Food from Britain (www.speciality-foods.com), Fenweb.net
(advertising goods and services from farm families in the Fen country of Eastern
England), the Farm Holiday Bureau (www.farm-holidays.co.uk), and Rarebeef.com
(promoting a calendar featuring unclothed beef farmers). However this approach will
appeal only to the more entrepreneurial, and those with products to sell other than the
usual bulk commodities. Business to business ecommerce, predicted to be an area of
major growth in general terms, (Durlacher Research 1999) is unlikely to provide a major
incentive to smaller farmers in the short term, given their relatively small number of input
transactions, and the strength of existing customer-supplier relationships.
One development that has been credited with generating substantial increases in internet
participation as a whole is that of online or „virtual‟ communities. Marathe (1999)
identifies communities of purpose, practice, circumstance and interest, these communities
being typically maintained by user-sustained „chat rooms‟ (allowing real-time dialogues
between participants), „bulletin boards‟ (allowing posting of contributions to ongoing
debates), group email messaging, and so on. In addition the community might well have
its own website, allowing collective promotion and, increasingly, commercial
transactions. Elements of online community of the „practice‟ kind can be seen in some
farming sites. During the current agricultural recession in the UK, bulletin boards on
sites such as FOL and FWi have allowed cathartic „sounding off‟ at the economic and
political situation, and have undoubtedly helped participants to overcome some of the
professional loneliness inherent in the job. The BBC Webwise site encourages and
facilitates the formation of online communities
In surveying the global (commercial) opportunities for online communities, Marathe
overlooks the original type of community, that defined by location. In discussions with
our focus groups and case study participants, a recurring theme was that of using the
internet as a local, rather than global medium. In this context the virtual community can
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build on and reinforce a pre-existing local community, perhaps compensating for the
decline of some institutions (such as the livestock market, the church, the social club)
which previously provided a medium for exchange of news and gossip, goods and
services. Here is the ideal location for the „virtual farm visit‟ suggested by a participant
in our research. To be truly effective, one suspects, such sites need to arise from and be
sustained by truly communal action: it would be difficult to create the necessary level of
usage by „top-down‟ action from an external agency. The BBC Webwise site, which
encourages the use of online communities, features just such a scheme: a small hill
farming village of 300 people in mid Wales, with its own community shop and telecentre,
and an online lamb marketing scheme4.
Work patterns and the role of family
But will all these developments be enough to persuade worker-farmers such as those
featured in the case study are to change their long-established working practices to allow
effective use of WWW? A major issue for the farmers in our case study was that of time
- its availability in general terms, and specifically its pattern of use in office work in a
family-managed-operated farm business. The patterns of work of the participants did not
lend themselves to casual or frequent use of internet, but were suited to use of hard copy
(e.g. trade magazines and mailings) and fax. Time is a scarce commodity for most family
farmers, with a correspondingly high (though seasonably variable) opportunity cost. The
very difficulty of arranging meeting and interview dates for the case study was evidence
of this on a small scale, but other studies provide confirmation. In a comparison of
farmers and principals of small manufacturing businesses in Devon, England, for
instance, 50% of farmer respondents claimed to work more than 70 hours per week (the
bulk of it manual work), compared with 8% of manufacturers (most of whose time was
spent in managerial activities). Holidays for farmers were fewer and shorter, and
preferred leisure pursuits tended to be more passive (including a greater tendency to
watch television) and more social (Butler and Warren 1990). In such circumstances,
even with increased incentives and reduced barriers, many worker-farmers will still find
it extremely difficult to find sufficient time and energy to use internet technology
More productive than fighting this might be to think in terms of the farm family as a
whole, taking into account the needs and abilities of its various members. An important
initial motive for purchase of on-farm computers in our surveys was to provide for the
educational needs of children. Children, as has been seen in the case study, can be
drivers in the use of internet, whether in communicating with friends or in downloading
information for homework. They are already willing and active members of the
information society, not only possessing the skills to use the technology, but taking it for
granted as a normal part of everyday life. A correspondent to the magazine Farmers
Weekly suggests that readers „hook up a bright 12-year-old to your portable computer,
and get selling direct to the public‟ (Smith 2000). Even if not exploited so directly, the
enthusiasm of children can be tapped in such a way as to draw their parents in (reducing
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the fear of failure and inadequacy that many adults have when faced with a computer)
and to take an active part in searching for information and maintaining communications
(the modern equivalent of chopping the logs and feeding the calves?).
In our case study, none of the farmers made mention of the use of ICT by their wives. In
the UK at least, farming WWW services tend to be sold to the principal farm decision-
maker, with markets, news and weather services promoted most heavily. And yet in an
extensive discussion of the contribution of farmers‟ wives to farm businesses, Gasson and
Errington (1993) (Ch.6) found that the majority of wives are involved in running the farm
business in some capacity, most doing some manual work, and many (up to 70%) being
responsible for office work, including keeping of records and accounts. Lewis (1997)
cites several studies which support the view that farmers‟ spouses have a significant
involvement in the management of farm businesses. A prerequisite for increased family
interest in farming websites, however, is an improvement in design and content: many are
dull and off-putting in presentation, and few make any concessions to family users such
as the @griculture Online‟s „Homestead‟ section
(www.agriculture.com/homested/index.html). It would be interesting to see the effect of
an equivalent of the highly popular Farmers Weekly „Farmlife‟ section being featured at
the front end of an agricultural website.
Despite diversification of business activity, and the recent hardships in agriculture,
farming families remain important components of rural economy and society. Internet
technologies offer opportunity for them to improve competitiveness, and overcome
geographical limitations in diversifying business activity, as well as extend social, even
community, networks. To that extent, they represent significant catalytic potential in
rural development. Achieving this potential to the full, however, will require both public
bodies and private companies to take a hard look at their assumptions and processes in
order to provide what the end-user needs, rather than what is easiest to supply.
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