An Alabama farmer operates equipment that relies on computerization. Digital connections to other parts of the farm can help collect data to guide operations. (Photo provided by United Soybean Board)

The state of broadband in America’s farmlands is a mixture of the good, the bad, and the apprehensive.

The good: successes and advancements brought on by broadband and various digital technologies.

The bad: many farms still have to rely on pitifully weak technologies such as satellite and DSL.

The cloud of apprehension: we spend $6 billion in broadband grants yearly with surprisingly little to show for it, and yet we’re ready to do it again next year.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society released a progress report on farming and broadband, under the sponsorship of the United Soybean Board, titled, “The Future of American Farming: Broadband Solutions for the Farm Office, Field, and Community.” Many will find the report informative because it helps break down the complex topic of broadband in America’s farmlands and other rural areas.

For one thing, broadband drives important indoor office and business managements activities for farmers while simultaneously managing multiple outdoor tasks, many of which require wireless technologies. Second, in midsize and smaller farms, owners/business managers and family workers who need broadband’s business-management capabilities need the technology’s capability as personal and family management tools.

Because fixed wireless is much better than just a few years ago, communities now have more options for using wireless broadband.

Broadband Keeps the “Brain Center Humming

Hollee McCormick, CEO of Allamakee-Clayton Electric Cooperative in northeast Iowa, asked in the report, “Why are you all talking about farmers like we’re a different, special kind of business? We’re just like the bankers, we’re just like the educators, we’re just like every other business out there. We need [broadband] as badly as everybody else.”

The good news is that broadband is meeting a lot of needs currently.

The farm office, the “brain center” of the farming operation, often is in the home or a nearby farm building. The office space is used for administrative tasks such as payroll, banking, government reporting, and compiling data collected by the various farm operations, machinery, and sensors.

A typical operation comprises of a variety of structures that require broadband connections. This includes facilities that provide important operational data: grain silos, livestock barns, compost drums, fruits and produce bins. Fiber is ideal here for connecting these structures, but distance between buildings could make fiber too expensive. Fixed wireless or Wi-Fi can serve well in the short term, especially since wireless technology is so powerful.

What might be considered “quality of life” issues for farmers and ranchers could also drive the need for fixed wireless. For example, ranchers have installed video monitoring technology in their calving enclosures that allow them to check on the herd remotely and avoid trips to the enclosure in harsh, cold winters.

Broadband – Playing the Field

For as long as there has been mechanized farming there’s been a need to gather data about crops, livestock, out buildings, and equipment that are part of the process.

Conversations about rural broadband access tend to focus on connections to homes and offices, but precision agriculture increasingly requires reliable connectivity in the field as well as to the farm office. Farmers need both.

McCormick’ husband and his brothers own a farm in Iowa. “They’re not in an office, sitting on a computer all day. They have to have the [farm] information on their phones, and they have to have it now.” Dennis Buckmaster adds, “The truck, the combine, the tractor is your office. You’ve got to be connected there.” He’s a professor in agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University.

The farming process is answering “what if” questions constantly. “If the moisture in a field   is too high, and it’s late in the season, what can be planted?” Precision agriculture technology draws data from sensors and on farm equipment, but but the data needs to be transported by broadband.   

Farm equipment manufacturers have been on the leading edge and the marketing edge for years embedding this latest technology into their equipment. To complete the connection, farmers need broadband. Wireless connectivity such as cellular, satellite, and fixed wireless has tried to keep up but with varying success.

Now, the Bad News

Farming machinery manufacturers are inventing and marketing up a storm in the quest to make farming operations profitable and sustainable. Farmers are anxious to buy what they’re selling. Problem is, broadband is a guaranteed game changer, but farmers can’t get enough of it reduce costs and optimize the use of valuable resources.

Most American farmers lack the connectivity required for sustainable, data-driven agricultural practices, according to a survey conducted by the United Soybean Board. Biennial United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) studies on internet access and use among farmers show that many farmers are stuck using subpar connections, which limit their ability to conduct business online. Data from 2019 shows that 16% of farms are using cable-based internet and another 12% have fiber. The rest are getting their internet connection via technology that is slow, expensive, or both – satellite, DSL, cellphone data plans, and even old-fashioned dial-up.

Economic developers in a February survey indicated that the communities with the broadband problems, the communities lacking broadband, and those that have benefited by community broadband all demand a role in how federal agencies fund broadband. The process by which we map, allocate, manage and account for broadband spending by incumbents is a travesty.

Survey numbers reflect populations trapped under duopolies and monopolies. How great the broadband picture is for rural communities (particularly the low-income and impoverished residents) largely depends upon how effectively communities can create competition, either by public entities or private WISPs and co-ops. Follow the examples of Arkansas (where 44% of the state’s population is rural, using the Census definition) and Washington (16% rural).

The Arkansas governor signed the bill this year significantly reducing barriers to municipal broadband. In Washington, a bill was introduced to allow Public Utility Districts (PUDs) to sell broadband directly to consumers or organizations, something they currently can’t do. The bill would also allow PUD to sell outside their existing territory and construct broadband infrastructure for federally recognized tribes.

“This influx of spending will improve the awareness of digital equity as a fundamental issue, but the regions and towns that need this investment the most are ill-equipped and at a disadvantage to benefit from it,” states Pete Pizzutillo, vice president of ETI Software and host of the Broadband Bunch. “It’s not until we aggressively confront the fact that our farming systems future rely on better digital infrastructure, and we infuse future federal and state budgets with funds earmarked to support digital infrastructure will we then see digital equity improve.

Billions of dollars are being earmarked for broadband now. Exactly how – and whether – it will help remains to be seen.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, author, and consultant to local governments,