Scott Irwin had no idea that an online resource he helped launch 20 years ago would take off like the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which recently became the first man-made vessel to enter interstellar space. And he probably would not make such a grand comparison.
But few would dispute that farmdoc has become one of the most respected ag management resources not only in the United States, but also across the globe.
The project began at the University of Illinois in 1999 in order to provide “one-stop web shopping” for agricultural risk management research and outreach for Illinois farmers and businesses. Its initial funding came from an entity that no longer exists, the Council on Food and Agricultural Research, commonly referred to as C-FAR. It fell victim to state funding cuts years ago.
While it has not taken the place of Extension, farmdoc has greatly increased outreach, thanks to growth of the internet.
Irwin was a part of the group of University of Illinois ag economics professors who came up with the idea and developed it, and he serves as its leader today. The name is an abbreviated version of Farm Decision Outreach Central. It has grown to encompass three websites: farmdoc, farmdoc daily and Farm Policy News.
IFT recently talked with him about the scope and growth of farmdoc, whose official name is not capitalized.
IFT: Have you been surprised by the popularity and reach of farmdoc?
IRWIN: Absolutely. I could never possibly have imagined when we started that we would end up 20 years later with something that has the global footprint that farmdoc does now. Probably the most interesting thing to me is we set out to create a digital web model of doing Extension for Illinois farmers. In trying to meet that objective, we discovered that the whole globe is interested.
IFT: Where does utilization originate?
IRWIN: We get about half of our usage for the farmdoc websites from within the U.S. Corn Belt, half outside the U.S. Corn Belt. In 2018, 17% of our usage was from outside the United States. We get millions of visitors every year.
IFT: To what do you attribute the success of the program?
IRWIN: We just happened to have the right people with the right vision at the right place who encouraged this kind of innovation. It just happened. We’ve continued to innovate on a pretty much continual basis. That’s at the heart of why we’ve been so successful.
IFT: Do you often get feedback from people who use and appreciate the service?
IRWIN: Constantly. In my own personal experience, I don’t think I’ve been to a meeting anywhere in the world over the past five years where there is not at least one person — and usually several — who are dedicated farmdoc users.
IFT: How many people are on staff, what is the budget and how is it funded?
IRWIN: We have a six-person team right now. People contribute mainly in part. There aren’t many full-time people involved. The faculty salaries are paid for by combination of state and federal funding for research and Extension. The university itself supplies the funding for the faculty specialist positions. The remainder of the staff, we are responsible for finding the dollars from both internal and external sources.
The annual budget for the project is now about $250,000 per year, not accounting for faculty time. The faculty salaries are paid for by combination of state and federal funding for research and Extension. The university itself supplies the funding for the faculty specialist positions. The remainder of the staff is responsible for finding the dollars from both internal and external sources. We’ve also had sponsorships and endowments that help fund us.
IFT: Do those who utilize the service pay a fee?
IRWIN: No. It’s 100% free to the public.
IFT: What is the makeup of farmdoc?
IRWIN: We have three sites that are part of the farmdoc family of websites. The most frequent is the farmdoc daily site, which changes every day.
IFT: Are there other websites that provide the same services?
IRWIN: Not really. There have been a couple of efforts by different institutions to organize their materials on the web like we do. There is Ag Manager at Kansas State. Iowa State has the Ag Decision Maker. In particular, there is nothing even remotely close to the model we have of putting out one article every day, as we do on farmdoc daily.
IFT: Was farmdoc launched partly as a replacement for Extension?
IRWIN: The Extension service had been dramatically downsized. In fact, that was a reason we were thinking about this in the late ’90s. We ran into a situation where Extension personnel and budgets had shrunk so much the decision was get out of that activity entirely or try something different.
IFT: Did its inception dovetail with the budding adoption of the internet two decades ago? In other words, was farmdoc the right idea at the right time?
IRWIN: You could certainly look at it that way. But that was not our thinking 20 years ago. It was all new then.