Wednesday, October 27, 2021
How can we provide the broadband that farmers need?
For many farmers, the definition of sustainability incorporates the economic, environmental and social impacts of agriculture, a “triple bottom line”. Farmers think about the profitability of their operations, not only to support the farm from year to year, but from generation to generation. Practices that make a small difference in the profit margin can have a major impact in the long run. Farmers are also thinking about how to maintain and improve the environmental conditions of their land, such as soil health, in the long term. And finally, farmers’ practices can affect the entire surrounding community, from the employees who work for the farm to the neighbors who live down the road.
These pillars are all interdependent. Americans are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of what they buy: nearly 8 in 10 say sustainability is important to them, and nearly 60% of consumers are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce the environmental impact. As environmentally conscious consumers demand more, farmers’ decisions must be both financially and environmentally sustainable.
Broadband access is essential for sustainability, as connected technologies allow farmers to measure their inputs and outputs, thus creating opportunities for smarter and more efficient resource management. The adoption of precision farming technology has powerful benefits, both for farmers’ profitability and for their environmental impact. Precision farming, for example, optimizes fertilizer application through reduced overlap and variable rate of inputs. Precision farming has improved the efficiency of fertilizer placement by about 7 percent and has the potential to improve another 14 percent with more widespread adoption. This not only saves the farmer money on fertilizers; it also improves the quality of water and soil and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Similar benefits accrue in terms of the use of herbicides, fossil fuels and water.
Most farmers plan or consider incorporating more data into their day-to-day decisions, thereby supporting their economic and environmental sustainability. However, they face some internet related hurdles including slow internet speeds, high costs, and unreliable service.
So how do we provide the broadband that farmers need?
Broadband access is a challenge for farmers of all demographic groups, although farms operated by minorities face lower connectivity rates. Only 82 percent of farms have Internet service in some form. On average, 70% of farms operated by Hispanics, 66% of farms owned by American Indians or Alaska Natives, and 62% of farms owned by blacks have Internet access.
If access is one issue, market competition is another. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the speed, cost or reliability of their current service, 78 percent of farmers have no other viable option to switch service providers. Among rural households that can get online, at least 38% face a monopoly on basic broadband speed, which the Federal Communications Commission currently defines as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for download and 3 Mbps. download, or 25/3 Mbps. This definition, adopted in 2015, is no longer adequate to meet the needs of many Americans, especially those who operate businesses. At higher speeds, however, competition is even rarer: 35% of Americans face a 100/10 Mbps monopoly. When consumers have only one or two options for broadband, they are threatened by artificially high prices, inferior service and little innovation.
When I interviewed farmers, rural service providers, equipment manufacturers and other agricultural leaders and experts, a broad consensus emerged around several key outcomes for rural broadband, such as the need robust download speeds, accurate network deployment data, and scalable technologies.
Farmers know what they need for sustainable, data-driven agriculture that can keep pace with growing global food demand. Now is the time to hear from them and deploy the broadband networks and adoption strategies they need to continue to innovate and feed the world.
The Future of American Agriculture: Broadband Solutions for the Farm Office, Field, and Community examines how connectivity is essential not only in farm offices, but in fields for precision agriculture, and structures such as grain silos, pigsties or even compost drums. Since farms depend on rural communities and rural communities depend on farms, the future of agriculture also depends on the connectivity of rural communities. Broadband can open up new opportunities in farming communities, such as distance education, telecommuting and telehealth. Rural communities can work with local organizations, including nonprofits, cooperatives, and community-oriented private providers, to find solutions that meet their access and adoption needs.
The community, farm, and field each have different broadband applications, but the same network, such as a fiber-optic connection to the community or to the farm itself, could serve them all.
Broadband is not an end in itself; instead, the transformative power of broadband lies in its ability to connect users to solutions. A broadband connection to a rural farm not only improves a farmer’s ability to use precision farming in the field, but also increases her opportunities for distance education, telemedicine and social connection in the farm office. . A farmer’s family can also use this connection for distance school days and telecommuting opportunities just like any other family. In the community, this network could create new jobs and businesses and improve access to health care resources.
It’s time to deliver the broadband that farmers need.
Jordan Arnold graduated from Princeton’s School for International and Public Affairs with a master’s degree in public affairs with a concentration in domestic politics. From 2019 to 2021, Arnold was an associate researcher at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. She co-wrote If we build it, will they come? Lessons from Open Access, Middle-Mile Networks (December 2020) with former Benton Senior Fellow Jonathan Sallet. She also assisted Jonathan Sallet in the search for Broadband for America now (October 2020). Jordan holds a BA in Economics and Political and Social Thought from the University of Virginia. His undergraduate thesis on Rural Municipal Networks was supervised by Professor Christopher Ali, a former Benton Faculty Research Fellow.