Advanced broadband is a high-tech phenomenon of today. Farming is a practice that stretches back ten thousand years. Together, they can help fight the continuing impact of climate change.
Farmers live by the weather, and they see it shifting: Altered growing seasons, extreme events, migrating pests and disease pressure, disruptions in pollination cycles, all making more unpredictable what was already a tough enough way to make a living.
These are the telltale signs of climate change challenges, but they can be met head-on with the kind of data that advanced broadband can deliver – when it’s available.
Today’s high-tech farming depends on data – from remote sensors, from tractors, irrigation equipment, nutrient application machinery, and harvesters that communicate. Sensors and tracking devices around a modern farm can pump out readings from soil moisture to fertilizer needs to climate conditions inside a chicken house.
The possibilities for productivity improvement, budget efficiencies, environmental benefits and the ability to respond to continually changing growing conditions are endless, but as one technologically-sophisticated farmer, Trey Hill of Harbor View Farmers, told one of us recently, “we generate a lot of data, we just don’t have the means to transport it.”
Trey operates his ten-thousand-acre farm – an operation often described as not only technologically sophisticated but environmentally so – on a cell network. He reaps huge benefits from his technology, turning on irrigation from his cell phone thus saving water and applying fertilizer only where he needs it, saving money and ending over use that is neither financially nor environmentally sustainable. But at what cost? Trey and other farmers are subject to giant cell phone bills and they are unable to access their technologies on fields that are remote and without cell coverage.
Another friend of ours in rural Maryland spends as much as $1,000 per month to run his agricultural operations off of a mobile cellular network.
The lack of broadband in rural America isn’t a mystery. As best as the government can tell, less than 60% of rural America has access to broadband at 100 Mbps download speed; a typical speed – not even exceptionally fast – in other parts of the nation.
Moreover, not all internet access is advanced broadband. The USDA reported in 2019 that 22% of farmers used DSL technology, which is old and slow compared to what most Americans can access. Twenty-six percent of farms used satellite, which has broad coverage but tends to be more expensive and not as technically advanced. And three percent (more than 40,000 farms) still use dial-up, which was the go-to internet technology of the early 1990s.
So, it’s not just any old broadband that agriculture needs – it’s high-performance broadband.
The Federal Communications Commission and the USDA both have programs to fund rural broadband – although both need improvement. For example, the FCC effort will fund the ten-year construction of networks at 25/3 Mbps, which are very unlikely to be the networks Americans need in 2030, and the USDA ReConnect program isn’t allowed by Congress to fund any area that has 10/1 Mbps service or better already. To put these numbers in context, the cable industry wants to roll out 10 Gigabit connections, and already 23% of the country can use 1 Gigabit symmetrical broadband, which allows people to upload data at a rate 1,000 times faster than the 10/1 speed which is the ceiling for ReConnect support.
In the future, it's important that upload speeds be as good as download speeds. After all, precision agriculture is about sending data – not just receiving it.
States are doing their part. Illinois is about to roll out the biggest grant program in the nation to increase broadband deployment. Minnesota is running a widely-admired effort to connect its rural areas. And Michigan has set the goal of 1 Gigabit symmetrical service for everyone in its state, farmers included, by 2026.
Sometimes lack of advanced broadband in rural America is seen as a rural problem. But that’s not right. It’s a problem for us all to consider. Agricultural land is an immediately available, low-cost means of tackling climate change. Farmland and ranchland soils can capture carbon, but they require advanced management -- management techniques that broadband can support.
Farming can’t solve climate change alone, but advanced broadband to farmers is a necessary part of any solution.
Lori Sallet is the Media Relations Director at American Farmland Trust. Jonathan is a Senior Fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. Together, they own an organic farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, preserved under an agricultural conservation easement.