ST. PAUL -- When Charlie Born wanted to know how far European corn borer moths could travel, or whether a certain fertilizer application in the fall would help keep nitrogen in the soil, he typed his queries into his computer.
Within hours, the Janesville farmer had his answers from a ''virtual agronomist,'' courtesy of a new company called DirectAg.com.
''And they not only give me their answer, but then refer me to different links that might have more information,'' says Born, who grows corn and soybeans on about 500 acres in southern Minnesota.
The free service is just one piece of DirectAg.com's business, which launched last August and had a grand opening last Monday in new offices in St. Paul.
At DirectAg.com, farmers can buy products and services from major suppliers, read agriculture news, check markets, get financing and ask farm-related questions.
The company's goal is ''to build a site that would meet the needs of a changing agriculture,'' says Kip Pendleton, president and chief executive officer.
The virtual agronomist function is one way to bring information to small communities.
''In St. Paul and Minneapolis, there's all the advisers you could afford,'' Pendleton says. ''In a town of a thousand, it's limited.''
The average producer today has 18 different relationships that involve buying, such as with equipment dealers or seed vendors, says Pendleton, who worked for 18 years in the seed business with Pioneer Hi-bred, Northrup King and Mycogen. The challenge was to bring all those relationships together.
The business has partnered with companies such as Stine Seed, BuyAg.com -- a consortium of dealers that sell machinery parts -- and six financial institutions, spokeswoman Meghan Gearity said. Other agreements provide the site with agricultural news. Expected in the next few months are deals involving animal health products and farm machinery parts.
DirectAg.com's 15,000 registered users spend an average of 18 minutes on the site each visit. While Pendleton won't reveal revenue figures, he said the goal was to have 5,000 customers in the first year each spending $5,000.
Jeff Borgmeier, who raises corn and soybeans near St. Peter, is expecting his first delivery of Stine soybeans purchased through DirectAg.com.
''This is the first time I've ever bought anything online,'' he says. ''It was a little bit of a learning experience. But actually it was pretty simple. ... I was pretty satisfied with it.''
Borgmeier, who learned about the company in a farm magazine, liked buying when it was convenient and avoided a lot of sales calls. ''I did this at 11 o'clock on a Sunday night, and I could just do it,'' he said.
Terry Wolf, who grows about 2,800 acres of corn and soybeans in east-central Illinois, uses the Web site as a news resource.
''The biggest problem on the Internet is trying to locate the information you want without being sidetracked,'' said Wolf. ''(DirectAg.com's) objective seems to be to fine-tune this to do what you want, so you can go to one site instead of going all over the Internet.''
Wolf, who serves on the Illinois Corn Marketing Board and represents it on the U.S. Grains Council, says a lot more farmers are online than people think. The U.S. Department of Agriculture backs that up, with a survey last year that showed the percentage of farmers nationwide with Internet access more than doubled, to 29 percent, from 1997 to 1999.
The same survey showed 52 percent of farms with sales of $250,000 or more had Internet access.
Pendleton knows his company is not alone in vying for potential customers. Earlier this month, Cargill, Cenex Harvest States Cooperatives and DuPont announced an anticipated May 1 launch of Rooster.com, an ''electronic mall'' for the farm industry. Some other agriculture Web sites include AgricultureOnline.com, XSAg.com and FarmSource.com.
DirectAg.com says the agriculture experience of its seven-person management team -- a combined 100 years -- separates it from its competitors.
Producers spend about $280 billion a year, says David Reinders, a part-time instructor of e-commerce at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
''It's a very large market that has been somewhat overlooked by many of the supplier-based Internet markets,'' he says. In some ways, farmers may be more receptive to new technology because they've had to embrace it due to remote locations.
''These farmers still like to be out in the field, but they'll have a wireless phone in the tractor while they're doing it,'' Reinders says.
DirectAg.com can serve both large and small producers, says Jeff Dykstra, the company's marketing manager. ''The Internet may be the great equalizer,'' giving small farmers access to the same information and resources as large operations, he says.
Dan Manternach, chief programming and content officer for another site, AgWeb.com, agrees that the World Wide Web gives small farmers a boost.
''The beauty of e-commerce is that farmers are going to be able to put out a request for proposal,'' Manternach says. '''Here's how many pounds of seed I need.' ... They put it on the Internet, and see who shoots them the best deal.''
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