By Annie Dee
On my Dee River Ranch in west central Alabama, I operate center pivot irrigation equipment that has helped me maximize crop yields on over 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans, using rainwater that is collected in reservoirs on my farm. We install moisture sensors in the fields after we plant the crops that allow us to optimize water application on those fields. We can control that equipment remotely using apps on our mobile phones, checking the moisture readings even when we’re out of state.
Our family has long had issues getting consistent access to high-speed Internet on farm and in our homes, which sometimes make it difficult for us to manage our irrigation even from other parts of the farm. To address this problem, we erected an 80-foot Wi-fi repeater tower on our farm. Even after incurring this expense, there are parts of the farm that we do not get good signals, especially the fields in our operation that abut the Alabama-Mississippi border.
I suspect that other farmers around the country have found their use of a range of precision agricultural practices to be similarly hampered by access to reliable broadband service. Data from the American Community Survey indicates that the share of residents in both rural and low-income counties with access to Internet service lags that of urban residents by at least 13 percent points. This broadband gap has been a chronic problem in much of rural America, and it has been an obstacle to residents in those areas having access to the same range of economic opportunities as their urban counterparts.
Over the last few decades, U.S. farmers have increasingly turned to precision agriculture practices to help to manage application of a range of inputs, including seeds, fertilizer, and irrigation water. These practices help to lower their production expenses while at the same time reducing the potential for fertilizer runoff into ground and surface water. A 2007 NRCS study found that soil and water quality benefits can result from reduced or targeted application of inputs and irrigation water benefiting the environment through the lowered use of inputs.
Satellite images of the Earth’s surface began to become available in the early 1970’s. The first man-made satellites were launched in 1957, mainly to demonstrate the robustness of Russian and U.S. engineering and science advances. The U.S. Landsat satellites, first launched by NASA in 1972, were designed to observe and record remote images of the Earth’s surface. For the first few decades, these satellites did not provide good enough resolution to be useful for agricultural purposes, especially at the individual farm level—initially, resolution could be no more precise than 33 feet. This limitation was imposed on U.S.-based satellites by the U.S. government for national security reasons--the fear was that accurate information from such images might assist foreign powers in identifying potential military targets in this country. The restrictions were lifted in the late 1990’s to allow U.S. commercial satellite firms to better compete in an international market.
Today, farmers can operate GPS receivers on their combines that receive satellite images that allow them to pinpoint their location geospatially within one meter. Use of different light spectra in those images, such as near infrared and microwave, can help farmers not only determine where their crops are having problems but also help them diagnose why it is occurring. Combined with the ability to deliver precise amounts of fertilizer or herbicide to a given spot in a large field based on such a diagnosis, it can help farmers maximize yield and optimize use of inputs. Hence, the phrase ‘precision farming’ was coined to describe this new use of technology.
Data from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) showed that in 2010 and 2012, some form of precision agriculture was used on more than 70 percent of all U.S. corn and soybean acres respectively. This involved use of a yield monitor on more than 60 percent of corn and soybean acres, but only about one-fifth of those acres benefited from the use of variable rate technology.
A variety of studies have looked into factors that drive the adoption of these precision agricultural practices. A 2016 Economic Research Service (ERS) study found that, based on the ARMS survey mentioned above, larger corn and soybean farms, with more than 2,900 acres, were twice as likely to adopt such practices than small farms. That study also identified hired labor costs and the stock of existing capital equipment on the farm, as factors influencing those adoption decisions. A separate study found that the age of farmers was a significant determinant of these adoption decisions, with younger producers having a higher propensity to adopt.
There is very little work examining the relationship between access to broadband and adoption of precision agricultural practices. A recent study presented at the 14th International Conference of Precision Agriculture surveyed Canadian farmers on this matter. It found that limitations on broadband speed/bandwidth and lack of highspeed internet availability have hampered farmers ability to use certain precision agricultural applications that require those attributes. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed reported transferring data to external service providers with an external/USB drive, and less than 10 percent by Wi-fi.
In recent years, federal and state governments have taken significant steps to improve availability of broadband in rural areas, but problems remain. As recently as 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated that 39 percent of rural Americans lack such access. In public hearings in 2018, members of Congress derided the accuracy of the broadband coverage maps provided to them by the FCC as too optimistic, and at least one Commissioner also questioned their accuracy on similar grounds.
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) estimates that lack of access to broadband costs rural America $70 billion each year in lost economic opportunities. In several states, such as Alabama and North Dakota, rural cooperatives are actively working to provide their members in the countryside better access. In other states, laws governing these cooperatives have to be changed to make providing broadband an eligible business activity.
The 2018 farm bill updates the definition of what speed constitutes ‘high speed’ for Internet access, and increases authorized funding for grants and loans to support expanded service from $25 million annually to $350 million annually. For farmers like myself, we need Congress to make sure these funds are actually appropriated and put to use – our farms and livelihoods are depending on it.