Can better broadband and big data save rural America?

When Robert Blair first got an aerial glimpse of his 1,300-acre dryland operation, he knew images of his fields would be a game-changer. Like many in the rolling Palouse Hills, the Kendrick, Idaho-based farmer grows wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, and alfalfa, as well as cows. Unlike many, Blair prefers to be at the bleeding edge of technology. But it’s not easy. Thirteen years after he first started using drones, he still struggles to get good enough internet connectivity to take full advantage of the technology.

Right now, it typically takes four days, on average, to send data files and receive the high-resolution drone images on a thumb drive via FedEx. “That is not good enough,” Blair laments. Ideally, he could get the data in real-time as he flies the drone.

“Farmers are essentially plant doctors,” says Blair. “We have to understand what’s happening to those plants.” On a four-wheeler, he says, you can see only about 5% of a 60-acre field — roughly 10 feet in any direction down individual rows — compared to 100% via drones. “With imagery I make better management decisions” — those that keep his crops producing enough and help him reduce inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, says Blair. “I just want the information in a timely fashion.”

He’s not alone in his frustration. Nationally, only 65% of rural residents have access to broadband technology. That may soon change, however. In April, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a $20.4 billion rural broadband fund to increase rural access over the next 10 years. At the same time, several presidential candidates are promoting big-dollar proposals to expand rural broadband, notably Senator Elizabeth Warren’s $85 billion plan.

In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published “A Case For Rural Broadband,” a report detailing the potential return on the broadband investment. The USDA estimates that deployment of broadband — when combined with next-generation precision agriculture technology — would generate at least $64.5 billion in annual economic benefits. According to the report, row crops such as corn and soy will gain 4% in gross economic benefits, while livestock and specialty crops (i.e., fruits, nuts, and vegetables) would gain 7% and 19%, respectively.

It’s an eye-popping increase — and one that presumes broadband is the only hurdle farmers must overcome to adopt more sustainable technologies and practices. Broadband will undoubtedly help transform rural farming communities — by providing economic development opportunities, such as online sales, and encouraging young people to stay. When it comes to the sustainability of small farmers in particular, high-speed internet access offers them a fighting chance to find new markets and stay competitive, but it may also set the stage for a new wave of consolidations.

Precision agriculture is a driving force

Precision agriculture is a catch-all term for a range of data-intensive tools — including yield monitoring and mapping, soil nutrient mapping, guidance systems to apply nutrients or pesticides, and variable rate fertilizer application technologies. The goal of these technologies is to deliver plant needs as exactly as possible on a farmer’s field, saving input costs and maximizing yield.

To that end, Blair has proven that by using data he can save significant amounts of fertilizer. Over the last few years, he’s identified four zones with different nutrient needs. By varying the fertilizer application rates accordingly, he has saved up to $20 per acre and decreased nitrogen runoff without compromising his yields. Blair’s operation is more sustainable—economically and environmentally. He thinks increased connectivity could only improve his real-time decision making.

But, Blair notes, broadband is just one of many obstacles to more widespread adoption of precision agriculture tools. He thinks government incentives and increased local expertise to help farmers use these new tools will be needed. “We need the experts on the ground to help growers do their job, so we don’t have to become IT or GIS [geospatial analysis] experts,” he says.

The experts on the ground agree. “If we offer broadband overnight, that doesn’t mean everybody would adopt everything in precision agriculture,” says Bradley Lubben, an agricultural economist at University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

While broadband is critical, it’s not sufficient, Lubben adds. The hurdles that may stymie adoption of precision agriculture tools include the cost of the technology, the tech-savviness of the farmer, and how close they are to retirement.

Despite relative affordability, many farmers still don’t use computers. A just-released 2019 USDA report found that 73% of farms have access to desktop or laptop computer, and 75% have access to the internet. Lubben published a 2016 study that found two predictors of the number of technologies adopted by farmers: cell phone use and a high number of row crop acres in the operation. Essentially, the wealthier, more tech-savvy farmers are the early adopters.

Regardless of high-speed internet availability, “a lot of the big guys already have [high-tech tools],” says Trish Kelly, managing director of Valley Vision, a Central California nonprofit research organization. They can afford big tractors with satellites or are able to put their own cell tower in. “It’s the smaller farmers that get left behind,” she says. And with those dynamics at play, it’s possible that increased adoption of these tools could lead to further consolidation, says Sarah Rotz, a social scientist who studies land and food politics at York University in Toronto.

Does broadband help small farmers?

While big farmers are better positioned with resources necessary to adopt precision agriculture tools, broadband gives small farmers a fighting chance to stay competitive. “We’ll not just see increased efficiency in the farm field, but also increased e-commerce and agritourism,” says Calvin Sandeen, broadband project coordinator for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

For many small farmers, internet connectivity can make or break their marketing. Maine-based cattle farmer Dan Kaplan sells high quality grass-fed beef direct to consumers. While the lack of rural broadband is not the only reason many small farms are struggling, Kaplan says, it is critical to developing online sales. “Without broadband, we would be stymied,” he adds.

Small farmer Johnathan Hladik, also the policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, agrees. He sells his Berkshire pork and broiler chickens directly to customers who live in nearby cities, and the internet is a crucial tool in making that happen. “I can’t survive solely on the customers in this local area,” he says.

But Hladik notes that reliable, affordable broadband has another important role in rural communities — to keep them from further depopulating. Nebraska’s population is shrinking in rural places. “We tend to produce, grow, and export young people,” says Lubben. In fact, rural communities all over the country are finding it difficult to hold onto the next generation. Sandeen has worked with members of the small town of Timber Cove, California, who say it feels like their rural community is dying as young people continue to move out. For them, “getting reliable, fast internet service is the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.

Hladik confirms connectivity is crucial, especially for young farm families—in part because so many of them have to work off the farm to make ends meet. “The days when one family can survive on just farming alone are, if not totally over, close to it,” says Hladik, who feels fortunate to have good internet access.

In Nebraska’s rural areas, only 58% have broadband capable of least 25 megabytes per second (Mb/sec) download and 3 Mb/sec upload speeds. (For comparison, one 2018 study found average speeds in the U.S. were 96 Mb/sec download and almost 33 Mb/sec upload.) “Broadband opens up other job options — for example, via telecommuting — to make it financially viable for young people to return to rural communities and raise kids here,” he says.

“To exist as a business in 2019 without the internet is hard to fathom, really.”

As aging farmers leave the profession amidst narrowing profit margins, rising labor costs, and shifting trading partners, it’s fair to suggest the next generation of farmers won’t exist without broadband. “To exist as a business in 2019 without the internet is hard to fathom, really,” says Evan Wiig, director of membership and communications for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers and the Farmers Guild.

When Rotz looks at the impacts of technology, she asks “who’s winning and who tends to lose?” Since big farms are better positioned to take advantage of high-tech tools, the trend toward a small number of larger and larger farms producing more and more of the food we eat is likely to continue, says Rotz. She adds that precarious and vulnerable populations are more likely to lose. “We really don’t see these tech investments helping to support for instance on-farm safety or health, or support for unionization of migrant farm workers,” she says.

While Wiig agrees that specific technologies have the potential to lead to more consolidations, he says he’s more concerned with the “political environment that encourages and turns a blind eye to monopolization in the food industry.” Greater connectivity, he argues, gives farmers a collective voice. “Anonymous farmers have no power. The more disconnected and voiceless a farmer is, the less say they have in getting a fair price.”

To that end, increased broadband availability offers opportunities for greater communication and education across vast rural areas. For example, Wiig increasingly hosts webinar series for small acreage farmers, on topics such as disaster preparedness. He also plans to post online videos of new tools and equipment at the Small Farm Tech Expo he is spearheading in December in Forestville, California.

“I struggle to come down hard on the extent to which broadband will have an impact and on whom, because it depends on the farmer you speak to,” says Rotz. What is worrisome, she adds, is that these technologies can be adopted by farmers in ways that very much enlist them into a cycle of data production that can best serve tech and equipment companies.

Who has access to the data?

Whether increased access to broadband would help independent farmers manage, analyze, and interpret high-tech data — and turn the aggregate of observations into farmer-specific fertilizer rate applications or seed choices—by themselves is another question, says Lubben. “An awful lot of yield data that generates pretty maps doesn’t translate to changed production practices, because they don’t know how to take next steps,” he adds. Perhaps not surprisingly, the number of consultants and large companies who are in the business of helping producers make those decisions is growing. And that leads to yet another reason why farmers don’t adopt technologies—concerns about data ownership and access.

Climate Corp, a unit of Bayer AG (formerly Monsanto), is just one of several data analysis providers that collect farmers’ yield, rainfall, fertilizer use, rotations, and other bits of information while building models aimed at maximizing yield. Another firm, Indigo Agriculture, aims to do nothing short of disrupt agriculture by harnessing Big Data to help farmers mass customize, rather than mass produce, crops. The move, according to a recent New Food Economy article, suggests that “the commodity system’s days are numbered.”

A quadcopter drone flies over a garbanzo field.

Even though data sharing is necessary to aggregate vast amounts of information in order to best guide an individual farmer’s management options, it’s not always clear how and where the data will be stored—and whether it will remain confidential. While attention has focused primarily on “who owns the data,” says Lubben, “the real question may be who has access to or control of the data.” Some farmers worry the data will be used to sell the company’s products or manipulate the market. And then there are concerns that the government could use the data — particularly if regulators wanted to monitor practices for environmental outcomes.

As efforts to increase rural broadband availability get underway, however, Rotz calls into question whether the public policy landscape is set up to support farmers — and especially small farmers, during this kind of massive shift. “We’re expecting people to transition when we haven’t created any economic or political conditions to make that transition, when this is their livelihood,” says Rotz. “We know farmers are in more debt than they ever have been. In order to obtain capital, they need to grow bigger. That’s the treadmill they’ve been on for 60 to 70 years now. I don’t think technology will free us from that,” she says.