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.

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

Agriculture, the fifth-largest e-business opportunity, will ring up $39 billion in commerce by 2003, he predicts. 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 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.

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.