As farming moves rapidly into the digital age, the need for faster, more reliable broadband access in rural areas grows.
Today, broadband is truly a necessity, not a luxury. Defined by Congress as the capability that allows users to “originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics and video” services, it’s essential to economic development, public health and educational opportunities — and with the rise of data-driven farm technologies, it’s essential for American agriculture, too.
The rural shortfall
In small rural communities, broadband connects residents to online distance learning, telemedicine services, and new customers in the global online marketplace. When communities access broadband services, incomes rise and unemployment falls.
“It goes back to when the telephone first started,” says Janie Dunning, a consultant with Missouri Farm Bureau. “Initially, it was believed to be a luxury, and then they found out quickly how essential it was to everyday life. That is broadband now. That is the technology world that we live in.”
But some 39 percent of rural Americans — roughly 23 million people — lack access to broadband services, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
For agriculture, broadband access becomes more essential all the time. “It’s hard to separate out digital tools and precision ag tools from standard tools now, because digital technology is built in to how things are done now,” says Joe Ben Bogle, business lead with Ag Connections, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Syngenta. “So, it’s important that farming communities be put online.”
Hunter Carpenter, director of public policy at the Agricultural Retailers Association, agrees. “Not only will broadband allow farmers to stay connected to the ever-increasing global connectivity of things, but it also allows for machine-to-machine technology enhancements and incredible technological advances to assist with things like moisture- level monitoring and field mapping,” he says. “It allows machines to talk to one another and share information.”
Connectivity also reduces downtime for growers, because it allows for real-time monitoring and diagnostics from the dealer when a piece of equipment breaks down.
“We believe that precision agriculture and technological advancements will do for agriculture what mechanization did in the 20th century in terms of yields,” Carpenter says.
The issue of broadband access is getting attention from many directions today, which is what is needed to get results, Dunning says. Ag commodity and trade groups are essential to these efforts — including the machinery dealers. “These dealers can’t sell their smart machines to farmers if they don’t have internet access,” she says.
State-level partners are needed, too, Dunning says. “A lot of the states that are doing well in broadband have a state broadband fund, which is a grant fund used to leverage broadband infrastructure development. Getting the state involved through legislation, funding and a coordinated repository, like a state broadband office, is essential.”
At the federal level this year, Congress has passed, and the president has signed, an appropriations agreement that included bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the FCC and spurring the development of next-generation wireless services, says Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kan. “This legislation, which included $600 million to USDA for a rural broadband pilot program, streamlines broadband expansion in rural America and reaffirms Congress’ commitment to telecommunications infrastructure.”
Also this year, a precision ag connectivity act has been introduced in both the House and the Senate. “Basically, what it will do is start a taskforce between the FCC and USDA to look at how precision broadband connectivity in rural America can increase and enhance ag,” Carpenter says. “That has been one of the things that we’ve been pushing for on Capitol Hill.”
In January, the USDA also released the Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Taskforce Report, which identified more than 100 recommendations to help improve life in rural America. The recommendations, which include legislative, regulatory and policy changes, center around e-connectivity as well as quality of life, rural workforce, technology and economic development.
Rural broadband in action
At Ag Connections, located in rural Murray, Kentucky, the recent introduction of broadband access has been a game changer. “It’s allowed us to continue to have our office in our rural location and grow our company,” Bogle says. “We get 40 or 50 calls a day from growers, and we need to remotely connect to them and give them training and advice.”
Those customers are using Land.db, a state-of-the-art record keeping and farm-management system that’s part of the Syngenta AgriEdge Excelsior program. The software allows growers to create maps of their fields, record product use and measure performance across their fields. “It also helps them meet regulatory compliance and communicate with business partners, like landlords,” Bogle says.
Knowing many customers don’t have broadband access yet, Ag Connections created Land.db with the capability to work offline when necessary. “A grower can still enter information into the system, whether it’s scouting information, application information, anything they’re doing in that field,” says Aaron Deardorff, head of digital agriculture solutions at Syngenta. “Then once they travel to an area that has connectivity, all of that data will be sent into the cloud system that Land.db is built on, and the grower can access it on his or her phone or laptop.”
But many of today’s ag technologies are not able to work offline, which is why so many individuals and groups are working toward greater access. “Closing the digital divide and giving rural communities and members of our ag community broadband access will help ensure that those in rural areas can connect to internet users worldwide, succeed in the online economy and partake of educational opportunities that enable them to find future entrepreneurial success,” Moran says. “The ability of our rural communities to be economically competitive is strengthened by broadband access.”