Technology’s fertile furrow


30 Oct 2003

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If there are any city slickers out there who still think that the height of technical aspiration in the world of farming and agribusiness is a two-storey combine harvester they had better think again. It is understandable, however, if television coverage of the exhibitions area of the recent National Ploughing Championships did give something of that impression.

Irish farming may be inseparable from rain and mud but today’s farmer is likely to be even more of an SMS (short messaging service) user than most urban teenagers, have a smart PC in the farm office and is doing business with co-operatives and a government department that have deployed state-of-the-art technology for information and communications. Ordinary online banking has nothing on the secure internet services that link farmers’ PCs with their co-operative accounts, milk or grain quality analysis, super-levy statements and up-to-the-minute news that concerns their business.

The Department of Agriculture and Food has been an intensive user of computer technology for four decades because, perhaps notoriously, agriculture is administration intensive. It has certainly been so since Ireland’s accession to the then European Economic Community in 1973. Right now, for example, the department has files to monitor the life and movements of over 20 million living individuals — animals, of course. There are subsidy schemes, premiums, quotas, super-levies, grants, claims for all of the above and a vast range of monitoring activities from veterinary surgeons in slaughter plants to quality tests on all sorts of agricultural and horticultural products. You get the picture: it is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of information, with EU and national schemes to run and a customer base of about 160,000 farmers to serve.

The number and file crunching side of things is well looked after by the fruits of a major programme of IT rationalisation and upgrading in recent years. The department has two mainframes, mostly used for traditional tasks including a newly essential one in the fight against bovine disease, the Cattle Movement Monitoring Scheme (CMMS). The general work is based on a wide area network (WAN) spanning 200 locations with multiple Unix servers and approximately 5,200 PCs (including several hundred laptops for inspectors and other mobile officials). More recently, according to Philip O’Reilly, assistant secretary of the department and its IT supreme, the emphasis has been on developing internet and other interactive services that make the essential communications between the Department of Agriculture and its farmer and business customers simpler, faster and more effective. The department is also moving to a complete e-commerce solution throughout its vast range of responsibilities and, according to O’Reilly, the famous ‘cheque in the post’ for farmers is being superseded by online credit transfers. Earlier this year a new system for direct credit to individual’s bank accounts was set up by the department and nearly 20,000 have already signed up for this time-saving and cost-effective alternative to cheque payments.

But it is the department’s website (www.agriculture.gov.ie) that is becoming the primary resource through which information and services can be delivered and communications carried out. There is a wealth of reference information for any interested member of the public giving complete details of the many national and European schemes and downloadable documents, including all of the department’s forms. But the smart element is that all of the department’s customers, farmers and breeders and so on, can register and receive PIN/password access to a private area of the website where they can communicate and conduct business confidentially. Simple and sensible things serve people well: for example, any details filled in at the beginning that do not need to be changed do not need to be re-entered. Registered users certainly do not need to re-key their address and phone number, herd number or any of the other permanent information, regardless of which scheme they are applying or reporting to.

Another example of a common sense and friendly approach to using technology is the department’s use of SMS or text messages. Most farmers today carry a mobile phone as they work so a text message catches them ‘at the office’ without interrupting any current tasks. “We now have mobile numbers for around 40,000 registered customers,” explains O’Reilly. “One of the first uses proved its value in no time — giving notice of farm inspections. Post was the normal way but since we can only give a maximum of 48 hours’ notice that was not very satisfactory for the farmers. Many are part-time, so were gone when the morning post arrived and so they effectively had only 24 hours’ notice or less. Now their inspection notice comes by SMS and it’s better for everyone.”

Now another SMS scheme is on the way. Area Aid applications have to be made annually but there is often no change to the farm details. Very soon, registered applicants will simply submit or confirm their application by SMS where the circumstances remain the same.

That same Area Aid scheme is now also being extended over the internet: the iMap system allows customers to access their details by web and shortly will be extended to allow initial registration online also. For support and development schemes in agriculture such as this there will often be a legal requirement for originals and signatures. The department’s attitude is that these formalities can proceed by post in the traditional way at everyone’s convenience but as far as possible the actual services will be used or delivered electronically for speed and convenience. A good example is each farmer’s current herd profile in the CMMS scheme. The herd owner is entitled to a report of the official data as the department has it but can now receive it quickly off the system by email and in a format that allows the data to be easily imported into farm management software package.

By Leslie Faughnan