Impact of COVID-19 on Agriculture

Bridging the Rural Digital Divide

Viewpoints / The Zipline April 25, 2018

Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture / CC BY 2.0 

Farmers take great pride in our work and the tools we use to grow and raise an affordable and sustainable food supply. You can’t get much done on the farm without getting your hands dirty, and the same is true for the tools and machinery a farmer relies on. Farm equipment today is getting “smarter” and accomplishing things we never dreamed of, and high-speed internet is the key to making it all work.

Thanks to precision ag tools, we’re able to monitor the health of our animals and track the health of individual plants from planting the seed through harvest. We’re reducing our environmental footprint with smarter technology that allows us to be more exact in how much fertilizer and water we use on our crops. But these tools are useless without a broadband connection. Most of us today know the ease of having limitless resources at our fingertips thanks to tablets and smartphones. Those devices would be nothing more than shiny gadgets, however, without wireless service and data. In the same way, precision ag equipment requires high speed connectivity for farmers to take advantage of new techniques on their farmland and ranchland.

High-speed internet is no longer a luxury in today’s society and business world: it’s a necessity.

While most urban Americans take fast internet access for granted, nearly 40 percent of rural Americans are still without high-speed service today. That’s an alarming gap—and one that doesn’t exist in urban areas, where just 4 percent of Americans lack access to broadband. The gap could be greater still, due to underreporting in many rural areas. High-speed internet is no longer a luxury in today’s society and business world: it’s a necessity. Now more than ever with the slump in our farm economy and increased competition in the global marketplace, we must be able to connect with customers quickly and reliably. If we’re going to make the most of our limited resources, we need the ability to transfer data directly from the field. Then that data can be quickly analyzed, so we can decide exactly how much water to apply to a crop, how much fertilizer to buy and use, or what type and amount of a pesticide might be needed in a field.

This need in rural America is clear, and we are grateful for the attention the administration has already given to taking action. The president kicked off the year at AFBF’s Annual Convention by signing two executive orders that “promote the expansion of broadband internet into rural areas that lack connectivity.” We have also seen strong bipartisan efforts in the House and Senate to bridge the digital divide in rural America. The “Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act,” S. 2343 and H.R. 4881, presents a clear path forward for identifying cropland and ranchland that still lacks broadband access and would create a task force that brings together federal, public and private stakeholders to find a solution. This spring the omnibus spending bill also included a $600 million investment for USDA to identify and address under-served areas. The farm bill moving forward in the House of Representatives would make investments in rural broadband expansion as well. So good things are happening; we just need more.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy flip of the switch that can bring high-speed internet to all rural Americans. But as we have seen time and again, our greatest challenges can be solved when we are resolved to work together. We are seeing that resolve now with the leadership of the administration and Congress, and our strong partnerships in our communities and with agencies like USDA and the FCC. We can, and we must, bring our farms the broadband access they need to remain on the cutting edge and be sustainable for generations to come. Our farms and our rural economy depend on it.

Zippy Duvall

Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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