With personal computers becoming more and more popular, perhaps it's time to explore one of the lesser-known sources of gardening information: the agricultural bulletin boards. These notice-posters are made of electrons rather than cork, but they serve the same purpose as the more traditional type found in local supermarkets and other public places: the free and open exchange of information. An example, and one that most home gardeners might want to get acquainted with, is run by the Indiana Cooperative Extension Service at Purdue University. Named FACTS, this bulletin board is available to anyone with a computer, a modem (a device that enables computers to communicate over telephone lines), and enough change in his or her jeans to make a long distance call to West Lafayette.
Once you're connected and you respond to a query about your "terminal type" ("other" is generally the correct choice), you're presented with a menu of possible commands. Select "R" (for read) and you'll be able to peruse messages that other bulletin-board users have posted — everything from lamentations about the performance of the Illinois football team in the Rose Bowl to comments on the shortcomings of the telephone service in West Lafayette, Indiana. Reading the messages can be entertaining, but they rarely have much to do with farming or gardening. For those topics, you'll need to choose option "N," for news. Instantly, up comes the menu: There's a list of crops newsletters (which contain such items as grain price forecasts, farmers' evaluations of the corn program, and an emergency notification of the Environmental Protection Agency's suspension of the insecticide EDB) ...and a list of horticultural newsletters (even more up our alley, covering such topics as keeping flowers fresh, applying wood ash in the garden, planning a rose bed, pruning ornamental trees, planning your landscape, and starting seeds indoors).
The real treasure trove, though, is titled FXMENU and is composed of agricultural computer programs that are available through the county extension offices to all of the residents of Indiana, as well as to anyone else with a computer that can emulate a VT-100 or VT-52 terminal. In this section you'll find such goodies as a home garden planner (the same one that Northrop King has licensed for commercial use) of considerable sophistication ...a home insulation analysis program ...calculations that figure the cost of anything from credit to children's clothing ...and even a sample budget for a retired couple. Of course, there are more traditional agricultural software, too: pork or beef carcass performance evaluation, for example, or a ration analyzer for dairy farms. The astonishing thing is that these programs, while copyrighted by Purdue, are available — to anyone who calls the bulletin board — for the price of a phone call ...which after 11:00 PM can be remarkably small.
Then again, though FACTS may be the most accessible computer bulletin board, it's certainly not the only source of electronic information for farmers and gardeners. Nebraska has AGNET, a membership system with a $50 annual fee and connect and computer-use charges that can amount to an average of $30 an hour during business hours. Of course, a computer can do a lot of work in an hour —and charges are lower during off-hours. AGNET offers such consumer programs as Beefbuy (which compares alternative methods of buying beef ) ...Carcost (which calculates the cost of owning and operating a car or light truck) ...Firewood (an economic analysis of alternatives available with wood heat) ...and Foodpreserve (which calculates the cost of preserving foods at home, both by canning and freezing). Information about the system is available from AGNET, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Up in Michigan, you'll find TelPlan, a membership system operated by the Michigan State Cooperative Extension Service.
And in Virginia, you can join CMN—Computer Market Network—a subscriber setup sponsored by the Cooperative Extension at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The cost of computerizing isn't all that great these days, either. If you purchase a less-than$750 Atari or Commodore 64 setup, for example, you can access the bulletin boards, store the information you download, and print it out at your convenience.
The Gardener's Bookshelf
Western gardeners may already be aware of two gardening books from H.P. Books that recently came my way; both are worth a long look. Ken Smith's Western Home Landscaping ($7.95) covers landscape design, garden structures, and plant materials in HP's typically exhaustive manner, and with an equally characteristic profusion of color photos. And Western Fruit, Berries, & Nuts: How to Select, Grow and Enjoy (by Lance Walheim and Robert L. Stebbins, $7.95) applies the same formula to the incredible variety of fruit crops available to gardeners in the Golden West. If anything could make a New Englander envious, it's the color photo that illustrates the 11 cultivars of sweet oranges, 3 sour oranges, 3 blood oranges, 12 mandarins, 3 tangelos, 3 lemons, 4 limes, and 2 grapefruits that can grow in western gardens — not to mention such exotica as pomelos, tangors, and kumquat hybrids with names like "citrangequat," "limequat," and "orangequat." Both HP volumes are warmly recommended.