E-Commerce for Farmers: Shopping Online for $26,000 of Herbicides

The Wall Street Journal
By JESSE NEWMAN and JACOB BUNGE
February 16, 2017

Farmers turn to internet to save on seeds and other supplies; dispensing with a visit to the local co-op

Bran­don Sin­clair spent $26,000 on her­bi­cides for his corn and soy­bean fields last year, rough­ly half what he says he used to pay at his local co-oper­a­tive.

The sav­ings came from a source many U.S. farm­ers have been slow to tap: the inter­net.

Farm­ers have long made pil­grim­ages to farm stores and co-oper­a­tives to pur­chase seeds, fer­til­iz­er and weed and pest killers. Now, with a com­mod­i­ty glut pres­sur­ing crop prices and push­ing farm incomes to an eight-year low, farm­ers are scour­ing the web for bet­ter deals on the prod­ucts they use to grow their crops.

The shift could upend a decades-old sys­tem built around small-town sup­pli­ers that also offer farm­ing advice and sell ser­vices such as spray­ing for weeds. Mr. Sin­clair says the math is sim­ple: Using sav­ings found online, the 31-year old Illi­nois farmer was able to spring for a heli­copter to wran­gle his herd of cat­tle. Now he is urg­ing his neigh­bors to shop online, too.

I’ve always been kind of a tech guru and a tight-ass,” Mr. Sin­clair said.

The inter­net has been slow to spread across rur­al Amer­i­ca, but increas­ing­ly farm­ers are with­in reach of online pric­ing and sell­ers. A decade ago only a third of peo­ple in rur­al areas had access to broad­band inter­net, ver­sus near­ly half in cities, accord­ing to the Pew Research Cen­ter. As of Novem­ber broad­band had reached 63% of rur­al res­i­dents and 73% of peo­ple in cities.

Farmer pro­po­nents of online shop­ping say they have dis­cov­ered local prices for crop sup­plies can vary wide­ly across the coun­try. Weed­killers can cost up to four times as much in one part of the coun­try as in anoth­er, accord­ing to Farm­ers Busi­ness Net­work Inc., a San Fran­cis­co-area start­up backed by Google Ven­tures.

FBN, which pro­vides farm­ing advice and sells sup­plies, last year launched a ser­vice allow­ing farm­ers to mon­i­tor what their peers nation­wide pay for hun­dreds of chem­i­cals. Farm­ers use the data to nego­ti­ate for low­er prices from local retail­ers or buy prod­ucts direct­ly from FBN.

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