Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES - The 2002 Farm Bill authorizes up to $60 million annually for a national electronic commerce program for rural businesses, with one of the program's four regional centers likely to be located at New Mexico State University.
The e-commerce program to help rural businesses survive and gain an edge in the information economy would be offered through the Cooperative Extension Service, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency affiliated with land-grant universities across the country. NMSU has Extension offices in every New Mexico county to provide citizens with science-based information about agriculture, food and nutrition, families and rural development.
"New Mexico is now being viewed as a leader in this national initiative," said Robert O. Coppedge, an Extension rural economic development specialist who helped craft the legislation with Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. President Bush signed the Farm Bill on May 13.
Coppedge, who has worked in rural development for 30 years, considers the advent of the Internet a watershed event comparable to the Industrial and Green revolutions.
"E-commerce is a key to economic survival for small businesses and rural communities," he said. "We've actually got an opportunity now, if we move quickly in our rural communities and rural businesses, to acquire a competitive advantage. The communities that don't take advantage of it may see their populations declining over the next few decades."
Coppedge, a Hobbs native, said 29 of New Mexico's 33 counties are classified as rural.
The Farm Bill would create regional Electronic Commerce Extension Centers in the West, Northeast, North-Central and South. The Western Rural Development Center has endorsed NMSU as a regional site to serve 13 states and several territories.
The USDA's Cooperative States Research, Extension and Education Service will oversee the project, with a final budget determined by appropriations committees in the next few weeks.
The Farm Bill authorizes $5 million for each regional center to develop educational materials, conduct training programs and oversee multistate projects. The remaining $40 million would be distributed to states through competitive grants.
Coppedge, who has led a series of Teleliteracy ABCs workshops to educate New Mexico's rural leaders and business owners about e-commerce, said training would be tailored to local businesses' needs.
"It's not a one-size-fits-all kind of educational program," he said. "Certain things might be appropriate for a downtown business, but for a business that sells, say, pistachios, it's a totally different situation. So we will focus attention on Main Street businesses, farmers, ranchers and the agricultural sector beyond the farmgate."
Selling on the Internet is generally what people think of when they hear the term e-commerce, Coppedge said. "And that's a tremendous opportunity for a number of businesses, but that's only one small portion of what a business can do using the Internet. All of the functions that a business has to perform to survive and be profitable can be enhanced by using high-speed communications technology."
As an example, Coppedge cites the ability to find supplies at lower prices by comparison shopping online, a business-to-business function. The Internet is a powerful tool for researching potential markets, economic trends and competitors' products, he said.
And, Internet marketing allows rural businesses to serve customers around the world.
"We have businesses in New Mexico that are selling products and services throughout the world, in Asia, South America, Europe," Coppedge said. "They're able to do this without the geographic boundaries that we might have had a few years ago, when we didn't have the Internet and the information technology that we have now."
Technology also helps overcome rural isolation.
"Joining the Internet economy allows rural businesses to compete on more level ground," Coppedge said. "All other things being equal, many people prefer living and bringing up their kids in a rural area, which gives rural communities a competitive advantage over urban areas."
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