To 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 just to sustain the farm from year to year but from generation to generation. Practices that make a small difference in profit margin can have a major impact over the long term. Farmers also consider how to maintain and improve the environmental conditions of their land, such as soil health, long into the future. And finally, the practices of farmers 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 that sustainability is important to them, and nearly 60 percent of consumers are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. As environmentally conscious consumers demand more, farmer decisions must be both financially and environmentally sustainable.
Broadband access is central to sustainability because connected technologies allow farmers to measure their inputs and outputs, creating opportunities for smarter, more efficient resource management. The adoption of precision agriculture technology has powerful benefits, both for farmers’ profitability and for their environmental impact. Precision agriculture, for example, optimizes fertilizer application through reduced overlap and variable rate of inputs. Precision agriculture has improved fertilizer placement efficiency by an estimated 7 percent and has the potential to further improve an additional 14 percent with more widespread adoption. This not only saves the farmer money on fertilizer; it also improves water and soil quality and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Similar benefits accrue in terms of herbicide, fossil fuel, and water use.
Most farmers plan on or are considering incorporating more data into day-to-day decisions, supporting their economic and environmental sustainability. However, they face internet-related barriers, including slow internet speeds, high costs, and unreliable service.
So how can we deliver the broadband that farmers need?
Broadband access poses a challenge for farmers across demographic groups, though minority-operated farms face lower rates of connectivity. Only 82 percent of farms have internet service in any form. On average, 70 percent of Hispanic-operated farms, 66 percent of American Indian– or Alaska Native-owned farms, and 62 percent of Black-owned farms have internet access.
While access is one problem, market competition is another. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the speed, cost, or reliability of their current service, 78 percent of farmers do not have another viable option to change service providers. Of those rural households that can connect, at least 38 percent of them face a monopoly at the basic broadband speed, which the Federal Communications Commission currently defines as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, or 25/3 Mbps. That definition, adopted in 2015, is no longer adequate to meet the needs of many Americans, especially those who are operating businesses. At higher speeds, however, competition is even more scarce: 35 percent of Americans face a monopoly at 100/10 Mbps. When consumers have only one or two options for broadband, they are threatened with artificially high prices, lower-quality service, and little innovation.
As I interviewed farmers, rural service providers, equipment manufacturers, and other agricultural leaders and experts, broad consensus arose around several key outcomes for rural broadband, such as the need for robust upload speeds, accurate network deployment data, and scalable technologies.
Farmers know what they need for sustainable, data-driven agriculture that can keep pace with the world’s rising food demand. Now it’s time to hear them and deploy the broadband networks and adoption strategies they require to continue to innovate and feed the world.
The Future of American Farming: Broadband Solutions for the Farm Office, Field, and Community examines how connectivity is critical not only in farm offices, but in fields for precision farming, and to structures such as grain silos, hog barns, or even compost drums. Since farms depend on rural communities, and rural communities depend on farms, the future of farming relies on rural community connectivity as well. Broadband can enable new opportunities in agricultural communities, such as remote education, telework, 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, the farmhouse, and the field each have different applications for broadband—but the same network, such as a fiber connection to the community or to the farm itself, could serve them all.
Broadband is not an end in and of 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 the farmer’s ability to use precision agriculture in the field, but also increases her opportunities for remote training, telemedicine, and social connection in the farm office. A farmer’s family can use that connection, too, for remote school days and telework opportunities, just like any other family. In the community, that network might enable new jobs and businesses and improve access to health care resources.
It is time to deliver the broadband that farmers need.
Jordan Arnold is earning a Master in Public Affairs at Princeton’s School for International and Public Affairs with a concentration in domestic policy. From 2019 to 2021, Arnold was a Research Associate for the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.
She co-authored 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 research for Broadband for America Now (October 2020). Jordan holds a B.A. in Economics and Political & Social Thought from the University of Virginia. Her undergraduate thesis on rural municipal networks was supervised by Professor Christopher Ali, a former Benton Faculty Research Fellow.