Rice Outlook Conference hears of cybernet scramble for profits NARY A grower or industry conference these days is without a presentation or panel on e-commerce. Many presentations are little more than sales pitches for specific Internet venues because Internet entrepreneurs are scrambling to make a profit in exploding cyberspace.

There are the invariable pros and cons on using the Internet to conduct business. Many are dabbling, searching for the best way to use cyberspace in their businesses since most everyone says it is the wave of the future. Meeting rooms are packed with people looking for direction. Cash- strapped Interneters are battling for survival in crowded space.

Of the 3 billion Web sites on the Internet, Al Brooks, president of PlanetRice, Inc. a rice-specific Web site based in Magnolia, Texas, told the USA Rice Outlook Conference last month in Las Vegas, that there are more than 1,300 agricultural Web sites looking for customers and income.

Agriculture, he said, is the fifth largest e-business opportunity that he predicts will ring up $39 billion in commerce by 2003. That is a huge financial carrot.

Farmers, he said, spend 17 hours per month using the Internet for business. The overwhelming majority of on-line time, 63 percent, is spent gathering information about commodity prices and weather, farm inputs and how to sell outputs.

Brooks says 25 percent of the nation's rice producers use the Internet for business.

The fastest growing element of the Internet are "vertically focused" industry sites. They are growing at more than 30 percent per month and generate five to 10 times the "click through" traffic that broad, horizontal sites generate.

The rice industry, he said, is "beginning to benefit" from the Internet because there is now a "critical mass of content and users" of both vertical and "business specific sites" designed specifically for the rice industry.

This is allowing companies to market effectively as never before.

One of those is Rice Belt Warehouse, Inc. in El Campo, Texas, which has seven drying and three storage locations in the Southwest. Rice Belt executive vice president and CEO Richard Ottis turned to the Internet in the wake of declining rice acreage and rice mills to market rice.

"We started looking at the Internet as a new medium to bring buyers and sellers of rough rice together," said Ottis. Rice Belt dries 25 to 30 percent of Texas' rough rice.

There's nothing complicated about the Rice Belt site. Lots are posted on the company's website, and buyers can bid on them. Rice Belt then contacts sellers to see if they want to sell at the bid price.

"We realize there can be improvements made, but so far it has been successful," said Ottis. "It saves time and money for everyone because it is convenient."