Like a growing number of agriculturalists, Rick Swenson uses his cell phone for more than talking.
Swenson, a Fergus Falls, Minn.-based regional agronomist for Crop Production Services, has found several "apps" for his phone that help him do his job more efficiently. One of the apps, or computer software applications, allows him to stand in fields with farmers and call up images of diseased plants on his cell phone. Farmers see the images and have a better idea of what to look for when scouting the field for crop disease.
"It's a good tool for teaching," Swenson says of the cell phone app.
Swenson is tapping into a powerful trend. Though still in its infancy, the combination of cell phones and apps is providing agriculturalists with new tools that can help them be more productive away from home.
Typically, apps work with so-called "smartphones" -- cell phones that provide Internet access and serve as small, mobile computers. Smartphones allow farmers and others in ag to access information from virtually anywhere.
Smartphones have been around since 1994, but technological advances the past few years have taken mobile computing "to a new level," according to the pcmag.com website.
As technology improves, smartphones have become increasingly popular with consumers. The percentage of Americans 12 years of age and older who own a smartphone shot from 14 percent in the spring of 2010 to 31 percent in the spring of 2011, according to a study by Arbitron Inc. and Edison Research. Ag producers are adopting new communication technology at the same rate, and in some cases at a faster rate, than consumers in general, according to Paulsen Marketing in Sioux Falls, S.D. The advertising company says it specializes in the ag and rural lifestyle industry.
Sara Steever and Kristi Moss, who work at Paulsen, have studied farmers' growing use of communication tools. The two say they've identified several reasons why ag producers are making greater use of such tools. The reasons include:
Today's commodity markets are so volatile that producers need fast, constant access to real-time information.
More young adults are coming home to join the family ag operation. They often have technological savvy that their parents may lack.
One or both members of a farming couple might have an off-farm job in which such technology is used.
Agriculturalists are accustomed to taking advantage of new technology and are keenly interested in smartphones and apps, says Emery Tschetter. He's assistant director for marketing and accountability at South Dakota State University, which has developed several apps for ag.
"I run into people who think farmers will be the last ones to be interested in this kind of technology. But they're among the first to want it," he says.
How can newcomers to smartphones and apps learn more?
"Talk to somebody who's already using them. That's the best place to start," says John Nowatzki, who works in the North Dakota State University Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department. His areas of expertise include wireless technology on farms.
It's also important to learn, if you don't know already, what operating system a smartphone uses. The operating system manages the phone's hardware and software. Apps are designed for a particular operating system and aren't compatible with others.
Once you know a smartphone's operating system -- Android, iPhone and BlackBerry are among the most common -- you can go to that company's website and check out its apps.
For instance, applications for the popular Android operating system can be found at www.android.com/apps.
About 115 million smartphones were sold worldwide in the third quarter of 2011, with Android accounting for 52.5 percent of the sales, according to Gartner, an information technology research and advisory company.
Some apps come in multiple versions, with each version designed for a particular operating system.
One such app is Foursquare, which allows users to "check in" at destinations using GPS on their phone. It can help farmers let others know where they're at --and to keep track of other team members -- as they move from field to field. It also can help, say, the manager of an ag sales company keep tabs on his out-of-the-office sales force.
More information on Foursquare and the different operating systems on which it can work can be found at https://foursquare.com.
Another app that can be utilized by different operating systems is Farm Progress Growing Degree Days, which measures the maturity of a crop by viewing growing degree days for a specific farm.
The operating systems on which the app can be used include iPhone (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/growing-degree-days/id386655475?mt=8) and Android (https://market.android.com/ details?id=com.farmcentric.GrowingDegreeDays&hl=en.).
Some apps are free to download and use. Others carry a fee, typically a buck or two.
For instance, Weather Live, which costs 99 cents, promises "magical animations reflecting real-time weather conditions," as well as forecasts and other weather information.
More information: http://itunes.apple. com/us/app/weather-live/id464770748? mt=8.
If farmers see one or more apps they really like but can't use on their smartphone, they might be tempted to switch to a phone with an operating system that can utilize those apps.
However, anyone considering doing so should check first with their carrier, or the company that provides voice and data services, Nowatzki says.
What the future holds
Developing effective cell phone apps for ag isn't done easily or quickly, officials say.
"There needs to be a lot of research to give farmers what they need," Tschetter says. "You just can't turn out an app in two weeks."
More than 100 hours of programming time alone can be required to create a fairly sophisticated app, he says.
South Dakota State University already has produced a number of apps for farmers, including ones on soybean diseases and noxious weeds in the state.
Three more apps -- on stand count, grain moisture and harvest loss -- are planned, he says.
Another perspective comes from Weston Platter, president of the University of Minnesota's Smartphone Apps Enthusiasts, a student organization.
He sees big potential for smartphone apps in agriculture. But that potential won't be reached unless apps are designed to meet the needs of people in ag, not in the way that a designer arbitrarily decides what is best, he says.
People familiar with both smartphone apps and agriculture say the best is yet to come.
"This is just getting started. It's still in infancy. But there's so much potential," Swenson says.