Broadband access helps farmers stay competitive
By LYDIA NUSBAUM
Jan. 12, 2018
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Kelly Forck works with the land. But for his business to succeed, he relies on the cloud.
Forck and other farmers rely on internet access for up-to-date information on everything from crop prices to wind patterns. Data stored in online cloud-based servers allows for detailed soil analysis.
Forck, a farmer who produces corn, soybeans and raises commercial cattle on property near Jefferson City, is able to monitor his irrigation system from miles away. He can also manage his grain in storage.
"We do that because the computer, for one, can do a better job than what we can do as humans," Forck said.
Experts say that Missouri farmers need high-speed internet access to remain competitive in an increasingly technology-reliant field. But studies have shown that about 60 percent of rural Missourians lack broadband access.
The Columbia Missourian reports that such access allows farmers to operate efficiently and provide the food that Missouri and the nation relies on, said Chris Chinn, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
Chinn said there are fewer farmers today than in the past, with one farmer feeding over 157 people.
"Our world population continues to grow," Chinn said. "So it's more important than ever that farmers have all the tools they can to make the most of all they have at their hands."
In the past farmers would make phone calls to find out what they could sell their crops for, but now, with a click of a button or tap on an iPad, farmers have this information at the tips of their fingers.
"Markets are changing by the second nowadays, so having internet that's fast keeps the farmer updated," Chinn said.
Forck agreed. "We can check markets for multiple locations from one single source versus making multiple calls," Forck said.
The internet helps these local farmers stay competitive as an industry in a competitive market. Todd Lorenz is an agriculture specialist for MU extension in Cooper County. He said internet gives farmers the opportunity to know the current markets without waiting to hear it on the radio.
"Being able to make those cash-based decisions, in a very efficient manner, makes it more competitive globally," Lorenz said.
The internet can also help those in the agriculture industry track insects and diseases.
"They need to be aware that an insect or a disease is persistent in coming across the state," Lorenz said. "Having that sort of information in a timely manner is very important for their bottom line."
The types of technology farmers use today have developed tremendously since the 1990s.
While farmers are on their tractors or combines cutting the crops, they have technology that can map out which parts of the fields did better than others. They use GPS to make this happen.
In a field, each part needs different nutrients to produce the best crops possible. Farmers have technology that can test different parts of the field to see what nutrients the field lacks. Using a GPS system, these results are mapped out and put into the cloud. From here, they download the data to their computer and analyze it to see which seeds they want to buy and what to add to the soil.
Not only can farmers map out fields and analyze soil samples, but internet access allows them to control machines remotely.
But doing so relies on broadband access that many Missouri farmers don't have, or that is unreliable.
Sometimes Forck's machines will malfunction in the middle of a field, and he will need to access technical manuals online. If there is not good internet, he will need to go out of his way to find internet access.
"We need to find a top of a hill, or climb on top of a piece of machinery to access internet. Or we may move closer to an area where we know we can capture Wi-Fi or something to capture internet throughout the day," Forck said.
If none of that is possible, Forck must do it the old-fashioned way.
"There's a cost of doing business whenever we have to travel to those sites and manually turn that equipment on and off or just do a testing procedure," Forck said.
The data farmers handle with mapping technologies also requires adequate internet access.
Lack of high-speed internet can cause serious delays.
"When you're dealing with the big data in the cloud, something that may only take 20 to 30 minutes to download" in good conditions "may take most of the day to download when you have a slow connection," Lorenz said.
Chinn has a family farm that relies on broadband, and they struggle to access the internet. She keeps medical records for her animals on the cloud and accesses them multiple times a day. They need these records to make important care decisions for the animals at a moment's notice.
"We don't always have that option on our family farm, so we have to drive into town four miles away ... to make those decisions to run those reports," Chinn said.
Chinn also shared stories of other farmers having to drive to different states to relay information because the internet timed out.
One farmer "lost a whole day's work in the field because he had to physically take that information to the agronomist," she said.
"The one thing that most farmers want to do is bring their kids back home to that farm to be the sixth or the seventh generation farming," Chinn said.
She says investing in good internet access will help encourage them to work on their family farms.
"Our kids today, they love the technology," Chinn said. "So if we really want to bring that next generation back home, we have to have the ability to improve our family farms and keep up with the technology that's out there and available to us."
Forck said he thinks kids are more attracted to the technological aspects of farming than the mechanical side of it. Having better broadband access "would allow us to maybe someday (have) the kids come back to the farm," Forck said.
So how can Missouri get broadband to farmers?
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, and Gov. Eric Greitens have advocated for broadband expansion in rural communities. Chinn said there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to bring high-speed internet to Missouri farmers.
"I know some areas are looking at rural telephone companies meeting that need, or electrical co-ops meeting those needs," Chinn said.
She admitted funding is an issue and said some solutions may include looking for low interest loans or grants that smaller companies can apply for.
"It's going to be a lot of people coming together to be a part of that conversation to look for those funds to help get us across the finish line," Chinn said.
Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com