'BeefStar' Battle : Computers Plant Seeds in Farm Belt

March 09, 1985|DONALD WOUTAT | Times Staff Writer

LIBERTY, Ill. — Computer salesman Dave Natof turned his Toyota onto the ice-covered driveway leading up to the white frame farmhouse that is home to the Sims family, which started growing corn, wheat, soybeans, cattle and hogs around here when Abe Lincoln was just a local politician.

Natof's little car is a traveling salesman's office, right down to the coffee thermos rolling around on the floor. In the back were cardboard boxes containing his wares: an IBM XT computer, a monitor, a dot-matrix printer, a keyboard, a few boxes of software and a thick instruction manual.

On a previous visit, Natof sold this gear to farmer Randy Sims for $6,000. This time, arising before dawn and driving the 133 miles from Galesburg, Natof installed the system and spent six hours teaching Sims and his wife, Mary Ann, how to use it. He'll return several more times before planting season; after that, there won't be time for computer lessons.

Farmer's Hours

"It's the price you pay," said Natof, 26, a former vocational agriculture teacher, who fends off the Sims family dog while lugging the computer across the snow and into the house. "You gotta work a farmer's hours."

In the computer business these days, this is what's known as the front lines.

Having sold machines to all the hobbyists, the computer industry now is trying to persuade small-business owners that personal computers will make them money. Farmers were pegged as the most lucrative market of all. They're turning out to be a hard sell.

Though they historically have embraced labor-saving technology and made miraculous productivity gains, many American farmers, mired in a severe debt crisis, are casting a skeptical eye at a machine that doesn't move or make noise. Farm sales of computers have fallen far below the promoters' early boasts since the push began in about 1981.

Below Expectations

"Anybody who tells you the farm market met his expectations of three years ago . . . is lying through his teeth," said Robert B. Harris, chairman of Harris Technology Group Inc. of Lincoln, Neb., a 52-year-old agricultural testing and research firm that started publishing farm software called AgDisk in 1981.

But like the tractor and the milking machine before it, the computer is slouching toward Peoria. And it is adding a whole new dimension to the business--and the culture--of farming.

Every computer owner knows about the popular word-processing software program called WordStar. But how about the cow-management program, BeefStar?

More than 120 firms are now publishing at least 800 farm software programs with names like Sow Audit, Secretary of Agriculture and Nutri-Swine. Magazines called AgriComp and Farm Computer News have appeared, and vendors of conventional farm machinery are peddling computers alongside their tractors.

They say that on some Iowa and Illinois farms last fall, the hottest topic of conversation besides the election was the big offer from Vigortone Ag, a livestock feed firm in Cedar Rapids: a fat discount on an IBM PC and a free hog software program to anyone who bought at least nine tons of feed.

So what's a hog program? It might keep track of hogs' medical histories and breeding performance, figure feed costs, track weight gains and tell what price an animal must bring to turn a profit.

Livestock Prices

On the Sims farm, before the computer was plunked down on the dining room table the other day, another monitor already glowed green atop the kitchen counter. It flashed the grain and livestock prices from the Chicago and Kansas City boards of trade, updated every 10 minutes; the latest barge and rail-car grain loadings out of St. Louis, and dozens of other indicators that Sims uses to market his own livestock and grain.

"Two years ago I picked up $35,000 out of the (Chicago) board," Sims said. "That makes a difference."

With his new computer, Sims could tap over the phone lines into a data base such as AgriData Network in Milwaukee, which contains news stories on things like weather and commodity prices, for $399 a year and $28 an hour.

Meanwhile, he pays $1,300 a year for commodity news and analysis from the Illinois Farm Bureau, a cooperative that gets the signals from a satellite for collection on special FM radio frequencies. The day the computer arrived, workers happened to be installing a small microwave dish on Sims' roof to get the signals directly from the satellite, improving reception.

"A normal day on the farm," joked Mary Ann Sims, suddenly surrounded by high-tech gadgetry.

1,300 Acres

The Sims family farms 1,300 acres with Randy's parents, Melvin and Carol, and his Uncle Dean and Aunt Mary Jane. Randy Sims, 37, is a modern, college-educated, politically savvy farmer who knows the financial break-even point on his hogs, keeps good financial records and subscribes to the Wall Street Journal. Computer or not, when the agriculture shakeout ends, the family partnership known as Sims Farms will almost surely be intact.

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