Online course gives farmers an edge
- By Judi Hasson
- Jun 03, 2002
The Agriculture Department has designed an online course to help dairy farmers and brokers alike learn how to get the best price for their milk products without leaving home to do it.
Conceived two years ago by the USDA, the system now allows farmers and others to improve their business skills when they have a minute to spare. And they can do it from their own homes with the latest technology available.
The system was developed by mGen Inc., a learning, knowledge and solutions company that gave the USDA a way to conduct virtual classes for 110,000 students across the United States. The Massachusetts-based company delivers the Web-based training and communications materials to USDA employees and farmers. Eventually, it will be available to 1 million farmers across the country.
In the process, mGen's production suite enables the USDA to produce the content internally without previous programming knowledge, saving time and money. What's more important, it allows the USDA to pick and choose the courses it wants to include, unlike other e-learning companies that require a customer to purchase a suite of products.
"We have many employees nationwide," said Jody Firmani, the distance-learning coordinator at USDA's Risk Management Agency. "Some of them are in a location where they don't have ready access to classroom training. Travel is expensive and our budgets are tight. So this really fits the bill."
In early 2000, Congress issued a mandate that the USDA must provide workers with Web-based courseware or classroom-based learning to support their initiatives. Farmers were interested, but getting them to the classroom was a challenge.
As e-learning becomes part of the federal government's mandate, the USDA is leading many agencies in developing courses and online systems for their customers: farmers with no time and little money to keep up-to-date.
"We had a very specific need and we looked at a lot of different products," said David Vennell, USDA On-Line University administrator. "The only company that had all the elements was mGen. We got into it and had a very easy installation of hardware and software."
Other federal agencies have liked what they've seen of mGen's offerings and bought the product, too. In addition to the USDA, the company's customers include the National Guard, the Army's Inspector General School and the Navy Marine Corps Intranet.
"We have the ability to gather multimedia tools and structure it over a network architecture so you can deliver it to thousands of people," said Jack Battersby, mGen's president.
USDA officials think it's great. Right now, they are offering 50 off-the-shelf products, picking and choosing from different vendors. Courses include instruction in management, conflict resolution, Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect and Microsoft Corp.'s PowerPoint.
"We were looking for a different solution," Vennell said. "A lot of people were marketing off-the-shelf services for online training, but the problem was nobody had a package of products that would provide you the ability to produce the course for online interactive training."
Lon Burke, program manager for the USDA's Dairy Options Pilot Program, agrees. Before there was online training, farmers had to travel to an office for a class, and most couldn't take the time to do it.
"Those cows have to be milked every day. And someone has to be there to run the milking machine," Burke said, adding that farmers can now squeeze in the class at their leisure.
In developing its e-learning system, the Agriculture Department wanted to create a product that would help farmers and commodity brokers learn how to get the best price for their milk products. And that would require lessons in how commodities are traded and how the Chicago Mercantile Exchange works.
Like many USDA initiatives, this program was offered free to farmers and brokers, who are required to be certified before they can participate in trading.
Known as the Dairy Options Pilot Program, it led students through the futures and options market system and showed them how to protect farmers' incomes against falling milk prices.
"It was fairly easy to use and to do it at your leisure," said Bill Brooks, a commodity broker in Dearborn, Mo. "For a dairy producer to take five or six hours out of a day to go to a meeting just doesn't work."
Mike Arthur, a commodity broker in upstate New York, agreed. He said attendance was always low at classes for farmers and brokers.
"The [e-learning] concept makes sense," Arthur said. "I would encourage farmers to get online and take this course."