Rural America is at a connectivity crossroads and ISA is doing its part to forge the path forward.
By Brad Daugherty
When most consumers think of farmers, they think of a mid-century, low-tech version; they rarely associate farmers with the high-tech, dense information output machinery and equipment we utilize and lean on every day.
But we do rely on these things. Data and analytics. Global marketing. GPS. All of these things are necessary to farming successfully today. And they all require high-speed, efficient connectivity.
To do my job, and do it well, I need to be able to share, process and pinpoint data such as yield and soil fertility maps, solutions to crop and livestock problems, machinery maintenance and to ensure technology like autosteer, drones and sensors to function properly.
When you add to that the information I need that directly impacts business decisions I make daily – information available via the internet, including commodity markets, weather, historical and current production data, and industry updates – the need for a reliable broadband internet connection cannot be overstated.
And, yet, according to a 2019 study by the United Soybean Board, close to 60% of American farmers and ranchers believe they do not have adequate internet connectivity to adequately run their businesses; 78% have just one internet service provider option.
Those numbers are certainly concerning, especially given reliable broadband access is directly correlated with sustainability practices. In fact, connected technologies allow farmers to monitor their inputs and outputs to create opportunities for efficient resource management. What’s more, internet access allows for a certain level of ‘Keeping up with the Jonses’ – but in the best way possible.
Having the ability to see what neighbors – or even peers hours away – are doing and comparing results in real time leads to increased adoption rates of sustainability practices and increased efficiency.
When I talked with Todd Main, Illinois Soybean Association’s (ISA) director of market development, he said, “Reliable broadband will allow growers to adopt the latest production innovations and efficiencies associated with precision agriculture. This technological advancement has the potential to increase yields and income to growers while reducing costs of inputs through better application quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
And those are just the benefits for farmers. When you consider benefits to rural residents at large, it’s disheartening to learn that, according to the 2019 study, rural residents were 12% less likely to have adequate internet connectivity.
Seeing the gap faced by farmers and rural residents alike, ISA launched Project Broadband Breakthrough, a pilot program with the Benton Institute, the University of Illinois Extension, and the University of Illinois Extension Broadband Lab, to collaborate with five counties across the state to expand broadband access.
The project kicked off in January 2023 with stakeholders in Schuyler, Edgar, Ogle, Hancock, and McLean counties working together to develop grant applications, send out county-wide surveys, meet with community leaders, identify viable broadband anchors through mapping, conduct feasibility studies, and interview potential internet service providers.
Together, during the 16-week program, participants will lay the groundwork and build foundations to provide citizens of their counties with reliable and affordable rural broadband access.
In the summer, ISA will open Project Broadband Breakthrough to 10 additional counties to further broadband access across the state. After all, the state’s rural residents and farmers – and the economic contribution provided by both – deserve it.