USDA early with e-commerce site

USDA e-commerce Web site

The Agriculture Department has launched the first phase of an e-commerce program to help farmers access forms electronically and eliminate a visit to their local USDA office.

Three USDA agencies — the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development — launched the site Dec. 16, 16 months ahead of schedule.

Farmers are able to download the most common electronic forms required by these agencies, but they still must file them by mail. By June 2002, USDA plans to have an interactive site available so farmers can file forms "anytime, anywhere and not have to come to an office," said Chris Niedermayer, the assistant to the deputy administrator for farm programs at FSA.

The forms are designed to replace the one-on-one, over-the-counter service that farmers have been using for generations, Niedermayer said.

There are 2,500 USDA offices around the country, originally located not more than a day's horseback ride away from a farm. Today, farmers usually can get to an office within an hour. But USDA wants to make service even better.

"We tried to replace that communication quality with an easy-to-use site," Niedermayer said. So far, the site is getting more than 1,000 visits per day, he said.

Nearly one-third of the nation's 2.2 million farms have Internet access, and an estimated 43 percent of all farmers with more than $100,000 in annual sales have access to the Internet and use it. Under the new Freedom to E-File Act, USDA must establish an electronic filing and retrieval system to allow farmers to file paperwork electronically.

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