United Soybean Board: Poor Farm Connectivity Threatens Productivity, Sustainability

Farmers depend on Internet connectivity like any other businesses for daily office tasks such as record keeping, reporting, banking, and marketing. This dependency stretches further as daily farming productivity depend on GPS-based applications that enable real-time data collection giving accurate information on soil fertility, field mapping, and other farm-related tasks. An October 2019 report from the United Soybean Board (USB) describes how poor connectivity is striking at the heart of America’s agricultural industry.

Profitability and Sustainability: Threatened 

The report, titled Rural Broadband and the American Farmer [PDF]  reveals that 60 percent of U.S. farmers and ranchers do not have adequate Internet connectivity to run their business and 78 percent do not have a choice in Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The USB study touches on how poor Internet connectivity in rural parts of the country has negatively impacted profitability and sustainability in farming.

Among 2,000 farmers surveyed by the USB, 59 percent of  farmers plan to incorporate more data onto their system and 28 percent are considering more data usage. Most also want to use high-tech and data transfer applications but the impact of poor connectivity and unreliable Internet service does not allow them to do so. Michael H., a soybean farmer in south-central Louisiana said that, “Without the right support network, we can’t even consider taking advantage of getting real-time information from one piece of equipment to another.” Up to 33 percent of farmers said poor connectivity has affected their equipment purchases.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service reports that farming productivity contributes nearly $133 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) but lack of connectivity has heavily impacted farmers to contribute only $80 billion. 

Arkansas soybean, cotton, and corn farmer Vonda K. explained:

We need both financial sustainability and sustainability of the land. I would like to have more moisture sensors, to know exactly what’s going on. We have a couple of wells that we can shut off remotely, but I would love to have everything online. Then we could see how much it rained and where, and then shut off wells accordingly. But most of our wells can’t work that way because the farms don’t have the connectivity needed. It would save water and fuel to control remotely instead of driving out to do it manually. If it rains a lot really fast, we physically cannot get to them, and we waste water, fuel and energy.

Options for Farmers: Severely Limited

The study also found that most farmers rely on cell signals or hotspots but 40 percent have a fixed Internet connection and the rest rely on satellite connections. Cory W., a soybean farmer from North Dakota shares his struggle with his cell phones, “We’ve got to get 5 or 6 miles from home before they start to work fairly well.” Also, Cory’s call dropped three times during his phone interview for the study. 

Though it might seem that satellite is the only option with field access, the study indicated that it provided the least value for the high cost of satellite: 

In their offices, just 13 percent called it fast and 26 percent considered it reliable. As a result, 83 percent do not agree that it provides value for the cost in their offices, compared to 73 percent in their fields.

The majority of issues with limited connectivity also lies in FCC mapping that shows the vast majority of the rural U.S. has access to at least one fixed residential broadband network provider. One farmer in the report explained how the FCC reports that his farm is covered by broadband but in reality, his property is covered by cellular service and served by companies that are not providing broadband access (25 Mbps/3 Mbps as defined by the FCC) to his farm. 

Local Solutions for Farmers: Potential Exists

Increasingly, farmers are taking steps themselves to solve the lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

In Minnesota, for instance, the RS Fiber Cooperative, developed to provide high-quality Internet access, has brought gigabit connectivity through their "Fiber-to-the-Farm" project to rural towns in Renville and Sibley Counties. Fiber infrastructure and complementary high-speed fixed wireless Internet access have overcome the problem of broadband connectivity in rural areas.

Rural electric and telephone cooperatives are also picking up the mantle in rural places where large national ISPs don't develop infrastructure. Our recent report reveals that, much like rural electrification in the 1930s, member cooperatives fill the gaps to connect farmers who feed the rest of the county.

Read the full report from the USB, Rural Broadband and the American Farmer, here [PDF].