Winter 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB2

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Microcomputers-The Tractor of the 1990s?


Blannie E. Bowen
Rumberger Professor of Agriculture
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
Penn State University-University Park

Jeffrey P. Miller
Graduate Assistant
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
Penn State University-University Park

Kathleen M. Escolme
Former Graduate Research Associate
Department of Agricultural Education
The Ohio State University-Columbus

Have microcomputers revolutionized American agriculture in a way comparable to the way that tractors did 50 years ago? In the early 80s, many authors predicted that American agriculture would be revolutionized by microcomputer technology.1 To what extent are farmers using microcomputer technology in their everyday farming operations? What are the educational needs of farmers as we move closer to the 21st century? Answers to these questions are needed to give us the insight to develop educational programs that will help farmers and other interested clientele become better managers. Thus, the following study was done.

Research Procedures

Four hundred Ohio farmers were chosen for the study using a two-stage random sampling technique. First, three counties were randomly selected from each of the five Ohio Cooperative Extension Service (OCES) districts. The districts ranged in size from 16-19 counties. The farmers were then randomly selected on a proportional basis from agricultural mailing lists supplied by the 15 OCES county offices. Data were collected using a questionnaire that was content validated by a panel of Ohio State University faculty and graduate students who were experienced computer users. During a pilot test, the questionnaire was found to be reliable.

The questionnaire was mailed to the sample on March 2, 1988 and after five weeks, 204 farmers had responded. Farmers who responded the first three weeks (early) weren't significantly different (p>.05) from farmers who responded the last two weeks (late) on the major variables included in the study. Telephone interviews were then conducted with farmers who were using microcomputers to learn more about: (1) how they were using microcomputers, (2) the computer training they'd received, and (3) the types of training they still wanted to receive.

Major Findings

Here are some of our important findings:

  • Almost a fifth of the farmers (39 of 204 respondents) were using microcomputers for agricultural applications.
  • Farm size and attitude toward microcomputers were the best indicators of whether farmers were using microcomputers. Not surprisingly, users had more positive attitudes toward the technology and farmed more acres than nonusers.
  • Primary applications that the farmers were making of microcomputers included accounting, forecasting, planning, and correspondence.
  • Almost a third of the users subscribed to an electronic information service such as ACRES, AgriData, or CompuServe.
  • Seventy farmers indicated they'd participate in microcomputer workshops and short courses if they were offered during the next two years; most wanted the content to focus on how microcomputers could enhance their management capability rather than on basic computer skills and terminology.
  • Most farmers had positive attitudes about microcomputers, but the majority didn't believe they needed to use a microcomputer for farm business applications.

Extension's Role

Few farmers included in this study identified Extension professionals as the primary source for the microcomputer instruction they'd received. However, it's apparent that Extension is playing a role in delivering instruction about microcomputers. Almost 13% of the farmers (26 of 204 respondents) said that on at least one occasion they'd used a microcomputer that was available to them in a county Extension office. In addition, 23 of the 39 farmers who were using microcomputers said they'd participate in workshops and short courses conducted by either county Extension professionals or vocational agriculture teachers.

The findings of this study indicate that the farm community needs both basic and advanced levels of instruction about microcomputer technology. This dichotomy presents new challenges for Extension educators. New microcomputer users and potential users of the technology have one set of educational needs. Farmers who already use microcomputers recognize a need for increased management skills. However, we must provide programming that meets the educational needs of all farmers whether they're classified as microcomputer users, limited users, or nonusers.


1. J. O. Beasley, Microcomputers on the Farm (Indianapolis, Indiana: Howard W. Sams & Co., Inc., 1983); J. Legacy, F. Reneau, and T. Stitt, Microcomputing in Agriculture (Reston, Virginia: Reston Publishing Company, 1984); R. A. Levins and W. C. Walden, Agricultural Computer Programming (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1984); F. E. Sistler, The Farm Computer (Reston, Virginia: Reston Publishing Co., 1984); and S. T. Sonka, Computers in Farming- Selection and Use (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983).