“A lot of money is flowing to broadband and will continue to do so. However, it is a haphazard and scattered approach, in many cases, without a focus on the economies of the very communities it is connecting.”
Former Administrator of USDA’s Rural Utilities Service and current Managing Member with Rural America Strategies Chad Rupe joined the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast to share how current broadband allocations are “a bridge halfway” to aiding family farms and the growing need for precision agriculture.
“Farmers and service providers are changing the nature of a very traditional business and they’re working very hard to innovate the food supply system,” Rupe said. “However, just as the gap in broadband service exists, so does the gap in precision agriculture exist.”
Rupe said that with precision agriculture, both the farmer and provider can build up rural economies and harvest the profits.
At present, corporate ag is leading in most precision agriculture applications, he explained. This is possible because Big Ag is more able to leverage greater financial capacity to fund research and development and test applications.
“However, many of the family farmers who live in rural America are not able to leverage their farms to adopt experimental technologies. They lack the financial capacity of Big Ag and universities, and quite frankly, they also lack the connectivity,” Rupe stressed. “They are not meeting the density needs of providers to connect them, and if one looks at getting the home connected, there is limited return on investment of getting the farm connected.”
When adding precision agriculture, Rupe said the benefits are huge.
Majority of production in the U.S. is from corn, soybeans and cattle. With that in mind, precision agriculture can make the largest impact on crop row operations and the feeding of livestock.
“Family farms produce over 20% of the food we consume currently, yet they make up 2 million locations in rural America,” Rupe stated. “So, there is definitely a place for providers to engage.”
Looking at federal funding, Rupe said a majority of funds go towards the construction of a location only once, so if providers can take advantage of gaining more technology to meet the needs of the farmer while building out locations, the provider can drive up rates, increase the monthly charge for a better service and reach not just the farmhouse, but the whole farm.
Rupe stated that the benefit of adoption averages around 15% on gross income.
“When you meet the farmers, you find that the ones who have connectivity are usually collocated to more urban areas. The ones who are more distant might engage in a few benefits, such as John Deere’s GPS and for auto steering on the newer tractors, or they might have a few sensors on their property, but they don’t have real time engagement and data management across their farms,” Rupe said.
Farmers in rural areas do not have integrated systems and have not gained the full benefits of ever-increasing technology advances, he continued. Additionally, those farmers are rarely connected at the farmhouse with the FCC standard of 25/3.
“However, they are likely provided electricity by the rural electric cooperative, telephone cooperative,” Rupe said. “If they had connectivity for irrigation, they could engage in many more activities to support their operations. Today’s family farm is not taking full advantage of precision ag in the way that Big Ag is.”
If family farms did have more access, Rupe said it could look like this:
- Irrigation pivots, that are usually connected via rural cellular, could apply both chemicals and water when combined with monitoring of soil and crop conditions from sensors. The data management could determine which areas on the fields need certain applications of water and chemicals rather than a blanket application across the field, reducing waste of chemicals and water in areas where they are not needed.
- Older equipment could be retrofitted with instrumentation and communication equipment to not just auto steer but provide feedback and build the database for the year’s harvest or planting, as well as pest and disease control. This allows the farmer to not need to spend $1 million on that shiny green tractor with the latest bells and whistles, which means the farmer can realize the same benefits without going broke on lease payments to the factory.
The Department of Agriculture shows that planning and production can increase the GDP by $11 billion for just row crops.
“But not only the farmer benefits,” Rupe stressed. “The ensure food supply chain can increase the GDP by up to $64 billion annually.
“When Congress discussed and included $65 billion in the infrastructure bill for broadband, think of the return on investment when adding precision agriculture on site equipment to the eligibility of these funds,” he continued. “The cost to the taxpayers can be returned rapidly for everyone in the food system, from consumers to producers.”
Rupe added, however, that on site equipment such as instruments for precision agriculture are excluded from broadband funding or are omitted.
“If we stay on the current path, we are shutting out the economics of connecting 2 million farms and not closing the digital divide with a sustainable operating capacity to reach the least dense areas of the U.S.,” he said. “We are also leaving 20% of our food behind when we can least afford to do so.”
Rupe concluded by stressing that these buildouts do not have to stay on the farm. Rather, fiber broadband can be used to support grain silos, livestock feedlots, the rain and trucking industry to get produce to market, the traceability of food through blockchain and more.
“If we are to solve the digital divide in rural America, this is a path to do it right, and it is something that should warrant the attention of Congress and state governments,” Rupe said.
Listen to Chad Rupe’s full presentation on the Fiber for Breakfast podcast here.