Taking USDA's New Computer Tool for a Spin

Editors get pre-release look at new energy tillage estimator from NRCS. Tom J. Bechman

Published on: Dec 7, 2005

Thomas Edison needed 10,000 tries before his light bulb lit. So Farm Progress Companies Executive Editor Willie Vogt and I, Indiana Prairie Farmer Editor Tom Bechman, weren't surprised when the Natural Resource Service Energy Calculator had a few bugs. (http://ecat.sc.egov.usda.gov/)

Halloween was just days away when Willie and Tom sat next to Bruce Knight, NRCS chief, and several staff members at the Indiana NRCS office in Indianapolis.

"We want to see what you think of our newest tools," Knight says. "We need feedback from farmers and people who work with farmers."

The chief didn't know it, but we were the perfect pair. Willie is a computer guru. Me- I'm one step above computer illiterate. "We'll let Tom test drive it," Willie told the chief. "If he can do it, anybody can."

"Thanks Willie! You don't have to be quite that honest," I said.

Room for improvement

We were excited as NRCS staff called up the calculator. There were no men with bulging overcoats in the room, but the chief asked us to keep mum about what we were about to see.

For a while we wondered why anyone would care. The site worked…sort of. But it was cumbersome, and soon bogged down in details sailing straight over my head. The output was cloudy.

Willie and I looked at each other. How do you tell the NRCS chief that his 'baby' is a turkey?

You just say it! We soon realized that's why Chief Knight invited us. If sites were awkward, he wanted to know. His charge to his staff before we left was 'fix it and make it fly.'

Fast forward to the Monday after Thanksgiving

Larry Clark, former Indiana deputy conservationist and now on Chief Knight's staff, asked me to try it again. OK, Larry, I thought, I'll play along.

Just three clicks and I had all the information I needed to compare various tillage systems for fuel cost. Honestly, it's one of the slickest computer tools I've ever tried. Willie tried it and agreed.

"Larry, how did your guys pull this off?"

I'm sure Larry wished we were face–to-face, but I could almost hear him smiling anyway. "The chief made it a priority, and our guys responded," he says. "Some people burned midnight oil. We wanted it in time for farmers to use this winter."

You made it, Larry! Best of all you can access it from home, for free! Here's a humble hat tip to Chief Knight and his staff.