Online services crop up

Because tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers use computers to help

them manage their crops and their land, Congress is pushing the Agriculture

Department to become more Internet-friendly.

A bill that would let farmers file paperwork online and get access via

the Internet to USDA information on product and farm programs was approved

by the House Agriculture Committee's oversight subcommittee in a voice vote

March 23.

"This bill is about access. It's about allowing our producers the advantages

of a maturing information technology market," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.),

the subcommittee chairman. The bill (H.R. 852) now goes to the full committee,

where passage is expected.

Farmers aren't strangers to technology. In 1999, USDA's National Agricultural

Statistics Service found that nearly one-third of the nation's 2.2 million

farms had Internet access. Of farms with more than $100,000 in sales a year,

an estimated 43 percent had access to the Internet and used it.

USDA information about prices, crops, weather, and supply and demand

can have a major impact on the crops farmers plant. With more timely market

information, farmers can make smarter decisions about what to grow.

But Goodlatte complained that the lack of a common computer environment

at USDA has threatened to "limit the development of farmer-friendly Internet

applications."

"Our producers are in danger of being left behind," Goodlatte said.

USDA isn't the only agency facing pressure to better serve the public

via the Internet. The Transportation Department announced March 20 that

it is setting up World Wide Web sites to let customers pay for goods, services

and registration over the Internet.

Among them is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which

operates a Web site that allows truck and business operators to apply for

registrations and pay fines for federal safety violations.

The Social Security Administration and the industry consortium CommerceNet

are starting work on a project to deliver services, such as retirement services,

to the public over the Internet.

"Everybody is our customer potentially," said Tony Trenkle, director

of electronic services at SSA.

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