This year, 48 percent of farms have Internet access, a leap from the 13 percent that were online in 1997, the department said Tuesday. It's a slight increase from 2001, when 43 percent were online. The survey is conducted every two years.
Department officials said that growth is slowing now, partly because some farmers are unwilling to rely on it to help them run their business.
"A lot of them don't trust computers," said Mark Aitken, an Agriculture Department statistician. "I think there's still a lot of your smaller farms out there that basically do their bookkeeping in a shoe box under the bed."
The survey, based on responses from 26,400 farms nationwide, found that 54 percent of all farms own or rent computers.
Among them are Arleen Herring and her husband, Wayne. The Herrings farm 600 acres in Elsberry, Mo., where they grow wheat and raise 120 beef cattle and 1,500 hogs. They bought a computer in 1995, but didn't begin paying for Internet service until nearly two years ago.
It changed their approach to farming, said Arleen Herring, 62. Rather than depend on the 12 o'clock local news or the radio, they surf the Web for market information.
"When he's got the wheat all in the bin, he starts watching the markets on the Internet, wants to know which direction it will go and when to sell," Herring said of her husband. "Farmers need every edge they can get."
Matthew Bennett is a policy director for the advocacy group, Alliance for Public Technology. He said that while more and more farmers can get online, the government should focus on installing broadband — a fast connection made through cable or satellites.
Right now, he said, many farmers can only link to the Internet through phone lines.
The farm bill that President Bush signed last year provided $100 million in loans and loan guarantees over the next six years to encourage companies, cities and counties to invest in broadband in rural areas.
Broadband access in rural areas has lagged because the scarcity of potential subscribers doesn't justify the high cost of laying cable or building satellite towers in rural areas.