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Six years ago, foot and mouth disease closed much of the British countryside down. I wrote a column then about how isolated farmers were using the web to find and share information. FMD is back and, while it seems under better control, we now have Avian flu and Bluetongue disease to add to the depression. How, I wondered, has the rural web progressed?

I know farmers use the internet a lot, because I listen to the BBC rural radio soap, The Archers, wherein there is much mention of the web. I have found two sites that must be well used – both are high quality, and both are pretty terrifying.

The first belongs to the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA. The site has a somewhat messy home page, but its practicality is rescued by a series of Quick Links to the right. The first three cover the three diseases, and lead to highly practical sections. Advice to Farmers is a single long page that answers questions and leads through to photos and documents by the dozen. It is all quite simple but effective, especially as it makes use of web-only devices such as a postcode search to tell whether an area is in a control or surveillance area.

A link that caught my eye was to Farming Help which provides “confidential help for all in the farming community.” This is supported by charities that include the Farm Crisis Network and the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution. The striking thing about all three sites is that their aim is to get troubled farmers to pick up the phone. This is sensible. Simple sites, which cost hardly anything, take their place as conduits to a far more effective medium for people in distress. We need to know the limits of the web – and anything that calls for the warmth of humanity is well beyond those limits.

The second site is from Farmers Weekly, a print publication that has taken the web to its bosom. Farmers Weekly Interactive has much to interest those who barely know their pigs from their polytunnels. Wreckers Yard is particularly fun, with pictures of spectacularly crashed farm machinery from all over the world. But the prime audience is the practitioner, as is clear from the Question of the Week: “Does the CAP health check go far enough?”. The site is news-driven, and is thus I suspect the favoured home page for many farmers. When I first looked at it, on Thursday morning, the lead on a foot and mouth virus leak was pulled in from the BBC, but by the afternoon this had been replaced by FW’s own copy. This seems a sensible way of handling a breaking story – get what you can in immediately, then fill out with your own analysis as quickly as possible.

In 2001 I followed a foot and mouth newsgroup set up by another site, Farming Online The value of the community was clear from posts such as “I heard there was a case in Suffolk. Anyone heard anything?”This site has gone back to being a source of practical and often technical information, but FWI has taken up the community batten instead. The FWi Space area is a little hard to find (click on Forums and Photos), and not particularly easy to navigate, but it is worth persevering with.

FWI Space carries both forums and blogs – and shows clearly the strengths and weaknesses of each. Forums may be old-fashioned, but they are much more effective than blogs where many people want to talk about hot topics. Talking Point, the general discussion area, has had almost 4,000 posts in five years, with 310 of these about foot and mouth. As well as passing on information and gossip (some good stuff here), it allows farmers to let off steam. The latest post when I looked said “Words fail me! ******!!!!!!!” Blue Tongue now has its own forum, which is looking lively too.

The blogs are a little tame in comparison. Unless one of the bloggers were an affected farmer, it is unlikely they would add much to the foot and mouth (or Bluetongue) debate. Instead they range from the professionally chatty (AlliR discussing winter barley prices) to the folksy (KansasFarmer tells us what the weather’s like over there).

A feature that I associate with blogs is the tag cloud, which shows which keywords are used most often in posts – the more they are used, the bigger the font. But FWI also encourages tagging on its forums, and displays the resultant tag cloud prominently. Not surprisingly, “bluetongue”, “foot and mouth” and “sheep” are the biggest words – click any of them, and all the posts from any thread are listed. This is useful, and also shows instantly what farmers are interested in - the topics may be obvious now, but at less fraught times this could be a good way of judging farmers’ concerns.

I looked briefly round other countries’ sites and found nothing quite comparable, though the French agricultural ministry site has much solid information. Its home page has a number of banners pointing to mini-sites, one of which is for Fièvre Catarrhale Ovine, or Bluetongue, which is widespread in France. The content is practical, with maps showing affected areas, and has many useful downloadable documents. I could not however find any blogs or forum posts by the famously robust French farmers – perhaps their fondness for direct action means that mere words can never be enough.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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