July 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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Microcomputers: Early Adopters and Extension

Where do farmers and ranchers in the "early-adopter" group get information about microcomputers? What uses do they think they'll make of a microcomputer? What are the implications of these answers to staff members who plan, implement, and evaluate farm management Extension programs? This Nebraska staff member has some suggestions.

H. Doug Jose
Extension Farm Management Specialist,
Agricultural Economics Department,
University of Nebraska- Lincoln .
Accepted for publication: March, 1984.

The Adoption Process

Farmers' interest in computers has been growing rapidly during the past five years. The first purchase of a microcomputer by a Nebraska farmer probably occurred in 1978. The first microcomputer workshop organized by the Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service for farmers and ranchers was held in December, 1980. As a result of the interest in the first workshop, a second was held in March, 1981, and a third in January, 1982. The producers who attended the first workshops were "innovators," anxious to learn how microcomputers could be applied to their farm operations. They were interested in microcomputers even though software for many of their applications weren't available. Many were willing to do their own programming.

These people exhibited the typical characteristics of innovators. They saw the potential benefits of this new technology and were interested in adopting it even though limited information was available. They were willing to allocate time to search out the available information. They also had the discipline to overcome the frustration of limited information. Much of their information was acquired from computer programmers, computer technicians, and other hardware and software developers.

Computer Education Program

The next step in the education process was to provide an opportunity for producers we'd classify as "early adopters" to learn about microcomputers. By 1982, less need existed for farmers to do their own programming because commercial programs specific to a particular application were being introduced. Generalized programs such as spreadsheets and data management programs were also available and being used for agricultural applications. In addition, these "early adopters" didn't have the same inherent interest in creating their own programs as the innovator group. To help meet the needs of this group, a series of one-day meetings was held across the state to provide farmers and ranchers with an awareness of microcomputers.

In 1982-83, a series of workshops were offered that gave the participants the opportunity for hands-on experience. Because of limited budgets, Extension couldn't buy the needed equipment. So, funds were solicited on a loan basis from Extension agents who were interested in having an in-depth workshop in their county. A microcomputer association was formed to handle the funds. Enough money was collected to purchase nine microcomputer systems to conduct the workshops.

During the year, 26 two-day workshops were held. These workshops generated enough money through registration fees to repay the counties and provide for the travel costs of the Extension specialist who conducted the workshops.

Participant Survey

A survey was conducted of a sample of participants in microcomputer Extension programs in Nebraska during 1982-83. The questionnaires were completed at the workshops. Of the 101 participants surveyed, 91 % didn't own a microcomputer. Of this group, 70% operated a farm or ranch business, 7% operated a non-farm business, 9% didn't operate a business, and 13% operated a farm and a non- farm business. The data reported in this article include only those participants who operated a farm or ranch business. Participants were asked to identify their top three reasons for buying a computer from a list of options. The results are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Reasons for buying a microcomputer.
Respondent's Priority
Financial records
Analysis of alternatives
Livestock records
Field records


The microcomputer can be an effective management tool, but it does require time and patience to become familiar with the equipment. The respondents estimated they'd spend an average of 6.9 hours a week using their computer. Of the 80% who were willing to estimate a time, 54% indicated the time spent for business purposes would be more time than they currently devote to record keeping and related functions. The remaining 46% were evenly split between expecting to spend about the same amount of time and expecting to spend less time.

Only 28% of the respondents indicated they'd previously used a microcomputer or sat down with one at a dealer store. In addition, only 37% had ever used the AGNET time-share computer system. Another part of the survey asked where the participants had received information on microcomputers before attending the workshop. Participants were asked to identify the primary source of previous information. The responses are shown in Table 2.

Analysis and Implications

The participants were interested in more than just learning about computer technology. Nearly 40% said they were interested in buying one. This interest suggests a large number of farmers are interested in improving their management skills and looking to the computer to help them develop a management information system. Prior experience with computers isn't an indicator of interest in microcomputers. We've had systems such as AGNET available for some time, but the flexibility, accessibility, and confidentiality of a home microcomputer kindled their interest.

Table 2. Where respondents learned about microcomputers.
Magazine Articles
Friends of Family
Hardware Vendors
Extension Meetings
Software Vendors


Most adopters of computers aren't willing to devote time to writing their own programs. The successful software developers will market software that's easy to use and flexible. The challenge is to maintain the functionality and validity of analytical models, while allowing the user some adaptability. Although the hands-on opportunity appeared to be an enticement to the workshops, it wasn't ranked as a highly important reason for actual attendance. The hands-on experience can be gained in a more private setting where the level of intimidation and potential embarrassment is lower.

There are implications of the interest in computerized financial records. These systems are, by design, more detailed than manually kept records to exploit the capabilities of the computer. This means many operators have to learn about record keeping and accounting at the the same time they're learning to use their computers. Extension specialists and other educators should consider revising farm accounting courses and offering them to a new era of farm record keepers.

The second reason for purchasing a microcomputer, "analysis of alternatives," indicates farmers are willing and anxious to plan and compare alternatives. Farm management specialists must be prepared to offer help and present the appropriate analytical tools to farmers. Also a receptive market exists for software programs that easily and accurately compare alternatives.
A large percentage of producers apparently aren't ready to devote more time to their computerized management system than they presently devote to management. Software developers must be aware of this fact in developing software that's conceptually correct, but not excessively time-consuming to use and maintain.

The printed word is still an important source of information, particularly the popular press. The information obtained from acquaintances is also important. Computers are a new technology and farmers feel most comfortable learning within the confines of their own home or within the circle of their acquaintances.

Summary and Future Directions

Farmers have shown interest in microcomputers, but the educational process of helping them understand how they can effectively use them to develop a management information system has just begun. Extension specialists and farm management professionals must be ready to answer questions about microcomputers and their applications to farms.

Less need exists today for farmers to write software programs than was true in 1980. As farmers become more involved with detailed computer applications, such as financial record programs, there will be more interest in subject-matter topics as opposed to computer-related topics. After producers learn to operate computers, they'll be more interested in a variety of applications to their farm business. For example, many producers have already recognized the need for additional training in accounting and with the priority of use on financial records, this need will increase in the future.

Farm operators need help in integrating programs to develop an information and management control system. A financial record system, a field record system, and a budgeting model can all be independent models. However, the real power of these models comes in integrating them. If data can be retrieved from a financial base and used in a spreadsheet or other budgeting tool, the effectiveness of
the computer system is greatly enhanced. Software developers must also construct their programs with sufficient flexibility to allow this interfacing and integration. Most of the farm and ranch microcomputer users have little previous experience with computers or working with the structured approach of computer models. While they're learning about computers and how to operate them, they're also learning about the application models. Using a spreadsheet or a similar budgeting and analysis program before working extensively with more detailed models such as a financial records system will greatly facilitate this learning process. This approach has the added advantage of producing more immediate answers to the operator. A financial record system will require at least a year before useful and meaningful information is generated.

Finally, a continuing need exists to provide information on the evaluation of commercially available software and to facilitate the exchange of evaluation information between users. Universities don't have the resources to provide thorough evaluation of all commercial software. With the software that will be coming on the market in the next five years, there's an opportunity for an independent commercial software evaluation organization to provide a much needed service to the agriculture industry. Extension personnel, however, can help form computer-user groups. Meetings and conferences of users groups provide an excellent forum for the exchange of views on software by business operators.