Courtney T. Owens, Ph.D, Kentucky State University
S. Janine Parker, Ph.D, Broadband Infrastructure Office,
NC Department of Information Technology
Access to broadband and broadband adoption has increased nationally over the last decade, but that increase has been much slower for some areas than others. Southeastern states have a much lower broadband adoption rate than the rest of the country (United States Census Bureau [USCB], 2016); and some scholars believe this is due to the large rural areas in the South compared to other parts of the United States. Because majority of the small farmers are within the Southeast in many of these rural areas, increasing access and adoption of broadband is important for the future of the agricultural industry. With limited or no access to broadband, many small farmers in rural counties either need broadband and do not have it, or do not see the utility in using broadband. Despite these clear gaps for the Southeast, the federal government has increased funds within the last ten years to expand broadband infrastructure to increase access and adoption. Therefore, the purpose of this research is to explore future opportunities for small farmers through broadband access.
Broadband Adoption and Usage
According to the Census Bureau, most of the southeastern states were below the 2015 national broadband adoption rate at 76.7%, except Virginia
(78.6%) and Florida (77.5%). Georgia and North Carolina were just below the national average at 74.8% and 74.1%, respectively. Arkansas (64.2%) and Mississippi (51.8%) had the lowest broadband adoption rates in both the Southeast and the nation (USCB, 2016). Despite these somewhat reasonable rates, farm usage of the internet was significantly lower than the broadband adoption rates (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2016). All of the southeastern states had internet usage rates below 70% with the exception of Florida (72.1%) and North Carolina (71.2%); which was significantly less than the rest of the country. Hence, there is significant room to improve broadband adoption for this population.
Broadband infrastructure is needed to increase broadband access, but many providers identified hardware costs as a barrier for reaching low density populations. Some providers claimed that the consumer demand would not be high enough to recuperate installation costs (Broadband Infrastructure Office, 2016). Nevertheless, costs compensation for broadband infrastructure started increasing under the Obama administration in 2009. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Congress allocated $7.2 billion in grants and loans to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for “improving broadband infrastructure and consumer education” (FCC, 2016). The FCC’s National Broadband Plan (2010) incorporated the Rural Broadband Report’s four main recommendations: “(1) enhancing coordination among and between federal, Tribal, state and community agencies, governments and organizations; (2) coordinating data collection and mapping efforts at the federal, Tribal and state levels; (3) supporting consumer education and training initiatives to stimulate and sustain broadband demand; and (4) identifying important policies and proceedings that support further broadband deployment such as universal service and network openness” (FCC, 2009).
In addition to these funds, several other federal agencies have allocated broadband-specific funding to increase infrastructure and investments totaling over $10 billion. Some of those agencies include the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), where the Rural Development Office has allocated funds through their Community Connect Grants to “help fund broadband deployment into rural communities where it is not yet economically viable for private sector providers to deliver service” (USDA RD, 2016). The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has made available $58.9 million through their Indian Community Development Block Grant to increase infrastructure throughout tribal lands (Benton Foundation, 2016). Plus, the Department of Labor (DOL) has expanded broadband eligibility for their One-stops and Job Centers to improve digital literacy (Benton Foundation, 2016).
Limitations for Small Farmers
Even though funding has increased to help compensate for infrastructure costs, there are definite limitations for utility of broadband by small farmers. The age of farmers is one of the biggest challenges with the average age of farmers across the U.S. at 58, and more than 31% at 65 and over (Economic Research Service, USDA, 2016). In addition, 35% of beginning farmers are over 55 with nearly 13% that are 65 and older. According to the research, older farmers (50+) either have difficulty understanding and using both hardware and software, and the internet (digital literacy); or do not see the utility of using broadband and other digital devices. From the digital literacy research (Evans, 2013; Huvila, 2012; & Rowlands, 2008) age in combination with frequency of need are directly correlated with digital literacy levels. So the older the farmer who employs more traditional practices will have lower digital literacy levels and will not want to use broadband or digital devices.
Generational continuity is also a barrier for small farmers who do not have a succession plan. For some farmers, their next generations did not follow in their footsteps in farming. Therefore, when these farmers retire, they will either sell their farm to another or stop farming all together. Anticipating this type of future, some farmers find it too costly and irrelevant to learn how to use digital devices or the internet.
Financial costs are another major barrier for small farmers. Typically farming communities have very low population densities, which many providers do not deem cost effective to provide coverage. When providers are available, some farmers did not think the utility costs of the providers’ service was worth their money. In addition to the provider side, the costs associated with purchasing more digitally-advanced equipment can be extremely high. New tractors with GPS and precision agriculture equipment can range between a few thousand dollars to well over $100,000, depending on the farmers needs and their region in the United States. With so much fluctuation in costs, some farmers simply cannot afford to invest in some of the digital devices like those in precision agriculture.
Future for Small Farmers
Despite the possible high costs for digital devices in precision agriculture, the trend is definitely an increase in their usage. Within the last decade, the types of devices and usage of them have steadily increased (CEMA, 2016). Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) have been integrated into a number of farming equipment, which allow for multiple tractors to run at the same time or irrigation systems that are not only timed, but geo-marked for optimal water dispensing. Farmers are able to keep synchronous track of their farming needs through tablets and other devices supported through strong broadband services. Precision agriculture is also being used by banks, as they use some of the land mapping and digital crop data to help determine farm loans.
Beyond precision agriculture, high-speed broadband allows faster streaming capabilities for telecommunications and educational materials. As the needs of the farmers change with technology advancements, learning how to use those tools and communicating with customers, suppliers, and trainers can all be facilitated through broadband. Reaching markets beyond their local community is necessary for growth, and broadband provides a platform to reach beyond the farm.
Cooperative Extension and Small Farmers
Because cooperative extension agents and specialists have the longest running experience assisting small farmers, they are necessary in increasing broadband adoption and utilization among small farmers. With typically one office per county, cooperative extension’s ability to be both educator and facilitator can help small farmers in a myriad of ways. Therefore, cooperative extension should partner with local and state governances, along with broadband providers to ensure coverage for small farming communities. As local communities are creating their digital infrastructure future, extension can help facilitate the small farmers’ needs for broadband.
State extension specialists should collaborate with precision agriculture companies to develop programs that give farmers opportunities to learn and try out the different precision agriculture technologies. This strategy allows the farmers a practical way to be educated on the technological advancements and utilization of them, and gives precision agriculture companies marketing exposure and current understanding of their clientele’s needs. Cooperative extension should partner with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) and state library systems to facilitate digital literacy programs. As mentioned previously, digital literacy is a huge barrier to broadband adoption. These organizations could help extension agents provide relevant digital literacy skills for the small farming communities. Finally, cooperative extension should apply for grants and invest in broadband vehicles to help integrate digital programming. These vehicles could serve as mobile learning stations for both digital literacy programs and precision agriculture technologies. Incorporation of all of these strategies will increase broadband adoption and utilization, and help the small farmer stay relevant in a technology-advanced global system.
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Rural Development. (2016). Community Connect Grants. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/community-connect-grants
United States Census Bureau. (2016). Internet data. Retrieved from https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml