Jake Rieke, of Rieke Farms in southern Minnesota, on his tractor.

The owners of Rieke Farms in southern Minnesota got broadband only a few months ago, but that’s more than enough time for Jake Rieke to see the impact.

“I can download the maps from a cloud-based app to my iPad and desktop or access data on the cloud through a web browser that lets me determine the state of our planting and monitoring crops harvesting,” Rieke says. “Using a second iPad, we can log into the planter or combine and view a live stream of what’s happening at that moment.”

Broadband is also part of the automated security system at Rieke’s hog barns. And broadband allows him to collect and transmit planting and harvest data to improve productivity and get the most out of his inputs like fertilizer.

With that much potential for economic gain, you’d think farms would be a bigger priority when it comes to providing broadband across the United States. But the truth is, they aren’t.

“The majority of farms in our area (Minnesota) are not well served,” said Mark Erickson, economic development administration director of the city of Winthrop. “They rely on satellite, cell phone coverage with high cost data plans, crappy DSL with low speeds, and fixed wireless that suffers from lack of access to fiber, so the speeds are unimpressive. Under 3 megs [megabits per second – Mbps] download and way under 1 meg upload is the general rule. Some farms are still on dial up.”

Rural leaders often discuss broadband as part of efforts to get new business development in town. But some folks think we shouldn’t forget the impact that broadband can have on agriculture. It can be substantial, observers say.

Rieke Farms, for example, operates about 900 tillable acres, where they grow field corn and soybeans. They manage 7,000 finishing hogs, which they raise to a weight of about 285 pounds. This is moderately sized farm for Minnesota, Rieke said.

Rieke manages the farm with his father, Dave, and his wife, Kylie, along with one contracted employee recently hired to help with the hogs. An uncle still helps during planting and harvest.

Hog barns on Rieke Farms.
Hog barns on Rieke Farms.

“We are still very much a family farm that dates back to 1862 but incorporating and sharing our assets amongst my aunts and uncles,” Rieke said.

Rieke signed up for wireless broadband when RS Fiber made service available through its buildout plan. RS Fiber offers 25 Mbps symmetrical, meaning it downloads and uploads data at the same speed. The download speed is respectable (it meets the FCC’s download speed definition of broadband). But the upload speed would be a welcomed eye-opener in Chicago, Philadelphia, or any other metropolitan area.

Farm owners such as Rieke consider these new speeds digital manna from digital heaven, given that the newest agriculture-related technologies rely on broadband. Unfortunately for farmers who don’t have a provider like RS Fiber, they often can’t get anything approaching those broadband speeds.

The reason some internet service providers give for not serving rural costumers is that rural markets don’t justify their investment. Population density and market size can mean the numbers don’t work, they say. So in southern Minnesota, local governments banded together to create a broadband cooperative that is building out fiber across 10 towns and 17 townships in two counties. About 2,500 farms are part of the service area. (We’ve written about RS Fiber here, here, and here.)

In a rural area, 2,500 potential customers is a significant number. So that’s why some local governments and electric and telephone co-ops are trying to develop ways to serve them.

Broadband ushers in a new day in farm life

Besides mapping data with his on-the-ground machinery, Rieke says he can rent drones and cameras capable of providing general crop health.

“On a 40-acre field, I will pull about 20 grid points, which equates to about 300 soil cores,” he said. “I then input the data from these 20 grid points in an app that program creates soil maps. The harvest maps are created using GPS and sensors in the combine.”

For additional vital data, Rieke’s crop consultant flies over the fields to take pictures or videos, and uploads the content to a cloud storage system for Rieke to access later.

Ericsson said the network’s benefits will extend beyond the farm. “The RS Fiber project’s higher speeds will benefit kids who won’t have to drive miles to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot do homework,” he said. “Residents can take advantage of telemedicine opportunities, video communication tools such as Skype and entertainment factors. People who live on farms won’t lose their Internet or TV signals when the weather turns bad. Our folks will be able to participate on the internet at the same level as their city cousins.”

One commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, Michael O’Reilly, said recently that ultra-high-speed broadband access was a “novelty.” With farmers demonstrating what’s possible with 25 Mbps access, maybe it’s time for FCC commissioners to recalibrate their thinking.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author of “Building the Gigabit City.” He also hosts the Gigbit Nation talk show and writes about key broadband issues.

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