Three generations ago Canadian farmers got their market information from the local elevator and their weekly farm paper. A generation on, they shushed the kids and strained to hear the markets on the CBC’s noon-hour farm report. Just a generation ago, a handful took the electronic plunge and bought a DTN system that gave them the same satellite-based market reports as their local elevators.
But that’s all history now. Today farmers can simply slip their BlackBerry out of its holster, thumb a couple of buttons and instantly be looking at live quotes from the commodities markets, or special reports from a marketing service.
It’s what Yellowgrass, Sask. grain farmer Jeff Watson does every day. Or, more accurately, several times every hour.
“I use it all day, every day,” Watson says with a laugh while talking to Country Guide and taking a break from assembling a new air seeder. “It’s how I get all of my futures quotes and how I do all my communications with my commodity broker, using texts or email.”
Watson has been using a smartphone for about two years now, after he picked one up when the contract for his last phone expired. After a couple of seasons using the technology, he feels it’s just a matter of time before smartphones are recognized as the most reliable — and convenient — way to get information out to today’s young farmer.
Bill Smith, a technology specialist with Ag-Chieve, a Winnipeg-based commodity marketing advisory service, says smartphones are really a breakthrough when it comes to making the power of computing not only mobile, but always connected to a network. For farmers and others who don’t work in offices that are hard-wired for data transmission, that’s a quantum leap forward.
“They’re really a hand-held mobile computer that happens to have the ability to make a voice call,” explains Smith. “But they can also send and receive email, text messages and data of all types, and perform computing too.”
Sam Vurrabindi is another tech specialist who sees great promise for smartphones on farms. He’s the former head of information technology for Syngenta Canada and currently an entrepreneur who works on IT issues for various industries.
Lately he’s partnered up with former colleague Warren Libby, who used to head Syngenta’s Canadian division. They’re working in Guelph, Ont. on a company called Savvy Farmer, a subcription service which offers access to a website that acts as a crop protection resource. It allows farmers to compare their control options, look at prices, find generic alternatives and generally manage their crop protection programs.
Savvy Farmer tracks all of the available control options in a fast-changing marketplace where there are more and more generic products.
Recently Libby and Vurrabindi have been working on their first smartphone apps. “There are certain things that make a lot of sense — for example we have weed and pest photos to aid farmers in identification — to put on an app,” Vurrabindi says.
“But there are other things — a full product MSDS and label, for example — that don’t make sense because there’s just too much information to try to read on a BlackBerry or iPhone.”
Ag-Chieve’s Smith agrees that finding the right format to deliver information to a smartphone is going to be key to succeeding. That company has been experimenting with a Twitter-like delivery mechanism for short 140-character text messages that are pushed out to the phones of subscribers.
One of the most comprehensive market-tracking apps is available at no charge from Farm Business Communications, the publisher of Country Guide, at agreader.ca. Editorial director John Morriss says it’s aimed at meeting all of farmers’ most important primary information needs — timely market information, up-to-the-second weather and news headlines.
The app, now available for BlackBerry and soon available for iPhone, allows farmers to track all major U.S. and Canadian futures contracts with a 15-minute delay. There’s also an alert function.
“If you want to be alerted when a contract reaches or falls below a certain price, you can set it and a notification will be sent to your phone,” Morriss says.
The app also gives on-demand access to audio files of the twice-daily Farm Market News radio broadcasts from Commodity News Service Canada, and provides access to real-time weather information from the 800-plus WeatherFarm stations in Western Canada.
In Ontario, Grain Farmers of Ontario recently launched its SmartSell app for both BlackBerry and iPhone. Erin Fletcher, GFO’s manager of public affairs and communications, says the app provides futures quotes as well as local cash prices.
The real challenge, she said, wasn’t finding someone who could design apps. Instead it was finding a way to get the two separate sources of data — both of which were already readily available — to work together so that the app would update automatically.
There lie the technical challenges developers face when designing smartphone apps. While the numbers — or whatever the data might be — are likely out there, bringing it all together can be easier said than done.
Furthermore, the complexity of designing for all the different platforms and possibilities can make for a daunting challenge at times, but Vurrabindi says he expects the industry to rapidly standardize, as it has in other segments of the Internet.
As the phones evolve one thing becomes clear: they’ll be a crucial tool for the farmer of tomorrow, says Savvy Farmer’s Warren Libby.
“The market research we’ve seen shows that as farmers are renewing their cellphone contracts, they’re getting smartphones,” Libby says. “At the end of last year 17 per cent of farmers had them and the projection is that by the end of this year, 40 per cent will.”