sealPurdue News

March 1996

Purdue offers farmers and others the 'virtual coffee shop'

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- It's always time for a coffee break at the "Chat 'n Chew Cafe," an electronic, computer-assisted forum where regulars can pull up a virtual chair to hear about "Sex in the Cornfield," "Strategies for Managing Delayed Corn Planting," and "Leaf Rolling as a Sign of Soil Compaction." Obscure topics if you're not a corn farmer, intensely relevant if you are.

Cafe proprietor is Bob Nielsen, corn specialist with the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service. Sitting in his office in boots and jeans and surrounded by corn books, corn knickknacks and corn cobs, the bearded Nebraska native doesn't look like someone who's been carving out a niche on the World Wide Web.

The web is an informal network of computers on the Internet that allows open access to files or "pages" of information including text, color pictures, sound and video. Over just the last year, the web has opened the Internet up to a wide variety of users, including farmers, gardeners and ag aficionados. It's also provided a new publishing medium for many Extension experts at Purdue.

Nielsen has created the "Corn Grower's Guidebook" -- a web page dedicated to the biology and management of Indiana's No. 1 commodity, covering topics such as corn reproduction, management strategies and crop problems. There's the "Chat 'n Chew Cafe," the "Indiana Crop Progress Report," and links to agronomic information across the planet, all designed to help producers improve decision-making and profitability.

For ventures such as agriculture, which depend on up-to-the-minute information on weather, markets and pests, electronic resources such as Nielsen's guidebook can be a boon, providing information when farmers want it -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Tone and style reflect Nielsen's personality. "That's the way I talk to farmers. It doesn't need to be in high-powered scientific terms," Nielsen says.

"What I like about the web is my ability to provide timely information. It means I can look at a problem in a field in the afternoon and have the information to farmers that night."

In other words, the tractors on the Information Superhighway don't display those orange, slow-moving vehicle triangles.

Nielsen says he hasn't had a lot of feedback on his guidebook, but he didn't expect to. "There's not a lot of my kind of people on the web yet," he says. When they do show up, and he knows they will, based on farmers' traditional willingness to employ new technologies, Nielsen wants to be ready for them.

Peggy Sellers says she's ready. In addition to assuming the directorship of Purdue's Plant and Pest Diagnostic Laboratory (P&PDL), she also took over the direction of a virtual, electronic P&PDL on the web.

Sellers and her staff use the web to get more mileage out of the work they do diagnosing plant problems from samples sent in from across the state. The virtual lab not only covers agronomic crops like corn, but also includes homeowner tips on tree and turf problems.

For example, Sellers wrote: "Watch for Shotgun or Artillery Fungi that may be causing stress to the homeowner. These fungi thrive in organic materials such as mulch and dung (manure). They shoot their fruiting bodies high into the air (even as high as a two-story building), often landing and sticking to siding, cars, etc. A side of a house in Lafayette was covered with these structures that are dark in color and look similar to 'fly specks,' except a little larger. Removal is difficult. The problem can be alleviated by replacing organic mulch with inorganic mulch such as gravel, or by replacing wood mulch with bark mulch."

When diagnosticians start to see several samples of one problem coming in, Sellers tries to get a picture and a fact sheet up on the web as soon as possible. She thinks the web helps the lab make better use of Purdue resources and expertise.

"If we receive a plant sample from a homeowner, diagnose the problem, and send our recommendations back, we've helped one person, who's very happy," Sellers says. "But if we also put the report and picture on the web where others can see it, we can help hundreds."

The "lab without walls," as both the real and the virtual Plant and Pest Diagnostic Lab are known, also features an interactive "Ask the Expert" electronic forum, a list of educational activities and links to web pages from Purdue's Departments of Entomology, Horticulture, Agronomy, and Botany and Plant Pathology to further help people who want to know more about what's bugging their plants.

In fact, web pages themselves are sprouting like weeds at Purdue Agriculture, but they're more popular. The Purdue New Crops Center, which researches alternatives for farmers who want to try turning a profit with something other than corn and soybeans, has a page, as does Purdue Pesticide Programs and almost all of the academic departments.

One of the more recent web entries serves as the home for a joint project between Purdue and Ohio State universities that provides up-to-the minute news on crop status, pest problems and weather for farmers in the Eastern Corn Belt. "Ag Answers," maintained by agricultural communicators Amy Raley at Purdue and Steve Zolvinski in Ohio, pulls from the intellect and experience of some of the foremost experts in the country. In addition to the web page, "Ag Answers" also offers a free e-mail service to farmers.

"Every article is intended to make a difference for the audience," Raley says. "When Indiana and Ohio were affected by late planting due to weather, we had continual updates on decisions farmers had to make about crop varieties and when to plant based on their location."

"Ag Answers" also covers marketing analyses from agricultural economists at both universities and a calendar of agricultural events. New stories are sent every other day.

The material also is sent to agricultural media in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and it appears on the news pages on FarmDayta. DTN subscribers in Indiana and Ohio get the articles free.

A feature of the web page is a searchable data base of articles. Type in the word "corn" and more than 34 titles appear, many written by Nielsen in his role of Indiana corn expert. This allows readers to see all of the articles written about a specific topic, regardless of when or where they originated, knowing the information has been verified by university experts.

Nielsen expects that separating the virtual wheat from the surplus of chaff will become an important part of his web presence. His list of links to agronomic experts and expertise is one of the most popular items on his page, generating the most visits by users.

"It would be ridiculous for me to think that I can address all of the issues affecting corn development by myself," Nielsen says. "So I started a list of other useful information sources, and I think it will be part of my responsibility to make sure they're valuable and worthwhile."

Nielsen says he believes that for a farmer with a problem, there's no such thing as too much information: "It can be very lonely out there, looking at a field and having to make decisions that can dramatically affect your livelihood and your future. Sometimes, it helps to know what the experts think."

To reach the Purdue agricultural web pages, direct your web browser to for the Corn Grower's Guidebook; for the Virtual Plant and Pest Diagnostic Lab and for Ag Answers.

Sources: Bob Nielsen, (765) 494-4802; Internet,
Peggy Sellers, (765) 494-7071; Internet,
Amy Raley, (765) 494-6682; Internet,
Writer: Chris Sigurdson, (765) 494-8415; Internet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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