Most teachers wouldn't race over to a student's home late at night to help with homework.

Then again, in most classrooms, the stakes are rarely as high as in Chemeketa Community College's agribusiness management program.

Instructors Phil La Vine and David Sunderland are regular visitors at farms in the Willamette Valley - occasionally past dark - repairing computer bugs and figuring out accounting spreadsheet errors to keep their students' companies running smoothly.

Attitudes toward computers have changed drastically since the agribusiness program was launched nearly 40 years ago, when instructors predicted the machines would, at most, have a very limited application in farm operations, La Vine said.

"For a long time, it was: 'Let's wait and see if it'll work,'" he said.

Books to blogsNow, farmers use computers for everything from bookkeeping to blogging, said La Vine.

In the past 10 years, the percentage of U.S. farmers who access computers has nearly doubled, from 31 to 59 percent, while the ratio of those who use the Internet more than quadrupled, from 13 to 55 percent, according to a recent report from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The number of U.S. farmers who use computers to conduct farm business - which La Vine and Sunderland emphasize in their courses - has also grown during that time, from one in five growers to one in three, according to the report.

Finances in orderChemeketa's agribusiness program delves into the nitty-gritty of keeping farm finances in order with QuickBooks, a popular accounting software program, as well as tracking inventories and inputs with spreadsheet programs.

Record keeping is usually what initially prompts farmers to use computers - whether they want to or not - since modernized accounting is becoming increasingly necessary, said La Vine.

"The CPAs have driven it that way," he said.

In other cases, it's government regulation that lands them in front of the screen: Oregon's pesticide use reporting system requires participants to submit their reports online, for example.

"Some of our growers, it's the very first time they get on the Internet," said La Vine.

Once they discover the quick access to information that computers offer, however, many growers' interests expand beyond such relatively mundane tasks, La Vine said. They're especially drawn to online weather forecasts, he said.

"Regardless of what segment of the industry they're in, they're checking weather reports two to three times a day," he said.

"Even if they can't do anything about it, they want to know," added Sunderland.

Compare pricesThe Internet also offers a way for farmers to conveniently compare reports and prices on equipment, supplies, and inputs, and even make purchases, they said.

"It only takes two minutes and you get what you want," said Doug Duerst, a manager at Ioka Farms in Silverton, Ore., who regularly monitors the Web for used machinery.

"You can browse through and look at all the sprayers in North America," he said.

Ioka Farms and other outfits have also been stepping up and refining their websites to become more interactive, La Vine and Sunderland said.

For the most part, the phenomenon is most prevalent among operations that depend on year-round sales, such as nurseries, they said. Nonetheless, Web design is beginning to catch on among other farmers, however rudimentary their Internet sites may be, said La Vine.

"At the early stage, it just looks like a blown-up business card," he said.

Farmer websitesEventually, farmer websites will probably become the norm, La Vine and Sunderland said.

Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: mperkowski@capitalpress.com.

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