The Rural Broadband Evolution

When it comes to his relationship with his smartphone, Toby Ring is no different from millions of other tech-savvy gadget-huggers. If he goes a day without it, he gets withdrawal symptoms.

"It's like breathing," he says. "It's one of those things you've got to have to live."

What makes Ring a little different from the device-toting masses is that he is a corn and soybean farmer in rural Illinois who spends his days on and around 2,000-acre Ring Farms in the Urbana-Champaign area. But wait, you say, why do people in rural outposts need smartphones? What do they do with broadband that justifies the expense of rolling out connectivity that last mile—in some cases that last 100 miles or more?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some 70 percent of farms with sales of at least a quarter million dollars use the Internet for farm business, and more than 40 percent of smaller farms are online too. Meanwhile, new connected technologies that use GPS guidance and satellite imagery are infiltrating farms across North America and beyond. And a growing number of farmers are using the Internet to relieve loneliness via online dating sites dedicated to the community.

Connected Farming

Ring says broadband has transformed operations on his farm, located about 125 miles south of Chicago. He uses his iPhone and a Verizon mobile hotspot connection for everything from checking grain prices and communicating with pest advisors to downloading software updates for automated farm equipment. A few years ago, he says, farmers could rely on corn and soybean prices peaking at a certain time of the year. But with globalization, economic recession and markets in turmoil, he says those days are gone.

"You get a major swing in a matter of 15 minutes and then the market will be right back to where it was," he says. "So I'm constantly checking prices."

Ring says the Internet is also invaluable in his work as a seed salesman—a job that sometimes requires timely consultations with agronomists at the nearby University of Illinois. Ring recalls a case where a customer was debating whether to spray his soybean crop after discovering an infestation of bean leaf beetles. Using his iPhone, Ring took a photo of a nibbled soybean pod and sent it to an agronomist for advice.

"The agronomist could see immediately that, at the stage of that bean plant, it wouldn't be economically feasible to spray for these pests," Ring recalls. "Yes, the customer had an infestation, but he didn't throw money at something that wasn't going to help it."

Farming in a Global Marketplace

Commercial beekeeper Lee Townsend says his business simply wouldn't function without broadband. Located near Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, Townsend's TPLR Honey Farms has 2,500 hives producing between 400,000 and 800,000 pounds of honey a year. The entire farm—from the processing plant to the main storage building and foreign worker housing—is hooked up to high-speed wireless via a couple of wireless routers and wireless access points, Townsend says.

Having broadband "makes it a breeze" doing the notifications, permits and other paperwork needed to transport honey to customers, he says. But he says it was when the farm began exporting honey almost exclusively to Japan that broadband really started to pay off.

"I don't know how we would have gone into Japan without the access to broadband because we're doing video-conferencing and all of our documentation," Townsend says. "It's a lot cheaper and more effective for us and them. Our website has made a difference, too."

One handy practice: Townsend uses his iPhone to take a photo of the honey bound for Japan just before the container is sealed, then e-mails or texts the image to the customer. Similarly, as soon as the product arrives in Japan, the customer takes a photo and sends it to him. That's useful for insurance purposes in case product gets damaged in transit. "We can say this is what the product looked like when it left," he says.

One of the more surprising benefits of broadband is a social one. Every year, TPLR Honey employs 10 seasonal workers from Mexico who use the broadband in their housing area to stay in touch with their families back home. "Access to high speed for them has been huge," Townsend says. "When they're away from home for six months of the year, being able to communicate with their loved ones via Skype, MSN Messenger, Facebook or whatever else it may be, has made it a lot easier for them. You can just see how it brightens them."

Fostering Dynamic Rural Communities

Broadband is also playing a key role in a nonprofit initiative designed to help stem the exodus of young farmers from rural Alberta. Dubbed Green Hectares, the effort has already trained well over 2,000 people in the basics of using computers, video cameras and Web development, says Executive Director Wendy Schneider.

"In agriculture, we use tons of production technology but we don't use business technology to the level we could," she says. "That's where broadband came in. It's one of the most underutilized business tools."

Green Hectares has already received much of the funding for its next push—a three-pronged program that will bring mobile, micro-business centers to community halls around the province; give people access to a cloud-based repository of expertise including people, events and programs; and offer a short-term mentorship program to local business owners.

Schneider says the goal is to give rural dwellers access to the same services that are readily available in cities. It could be as simple as adding a PayPal account to a website or translating a website into different languages—steps that have boosted Schneider's own cattle-breeding business, Northline Angus. "It's starting to make a very big difference in our bottom line," she says.

A High-Tech Renaissance on the Plains

With the evolution of management concepts such as precision agriculture, the farming profession is becoming much more high-tech. Ring says his tractor uses a GPS receiver, satellite imagery and touch-screen monitor to "map" fields—that is, visually record everything from seed varieties and spray progress to wind speeds, chemicals applied and crop yields. The technology can help identify higher-yielding spots, problem areas,  and new ways to manage and harvest crops.

"It's really neat," Ring says. "It used to be one of the things that only guys who could afford it had, but now it's pretty much on every farm."

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Tags: Agriculture, Champaign-Urbana, rural areas, rural Illinois

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