Why NC Farmers Need Good Internet
What challenges do North Carolina farmers face in making the best use of new technology when they lack affordable high-speed internet? And what’s being done about it?
In this episode of Farms, Food, and You, two farmers and two broadband professionals talk the need for high-speed internet and what’s being done to expand access.
Dee Shore: (00:07):
Tractors guided by GPS, cows milked by robots, data collected by drones to pinpoint where and when to use water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Even biosensors that monitor animal health. With every passing year, North Carolina farmers increasingly turn to advanced technology to reduce losses, raise yields, and limit their impact on the environment. But they face obstacles. And one of the most talked about these days is the lack of affordable high speed internet connections, or the lack of high-speed internet entirely, in some rural areas.
I’m Dee Shore of North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. And in this episode of Farms, Food, and You, two farmers and two broadband professionals talk about the problems producers face when they don’t have high-speed internet access. They also talk about what’s being done to address those challenges.
Dee Shore (01:12):
Farms are businesses. And as with many other businesses, the technology they need to maintain profitability has evolved exponentially. So has the need to gather data and put it to use. Jeff Sural is director of the state’s broadband infrastructure office. And he says that, while some areas in North Carolina have world-class internet, others have access that’s, well, the pits. His office surveyed farmers and released a report in 2020. They found two overarching needs.
Jeff Sural (01:47):
Versus connectivity in the field, and two is connectivity at the office, which is usually at or near the farmer’s home. In the field, farmers need to collect data about the soil, the crops, the seeds, other information to make informed decisions about planting and harvesting. To do that, they can use what we call lower-bandwidth technologies like satellite technology or mobile cellular technology. And then they can gather that data and send that data to the cloud or a server or a vendor or partner. But then when they get back home, they need greater bandwidth in their home office to run their business. They need to be able to send data-rich documents, or they need to be able to use video conferencing. They may need to even access some of the commodities market and trade or sell to customers. And that typically means that they need a more robust internet service. And we focused our report particularly on that issue because that seemed to be an overwhelming concern that was voiced through our surveys.
Dee Shore (02:57):
Sural says that meeting internet needs is mainly a money matter. Farmers can live away from population centers, sometimes in remote locations where options for fast internet are limited or expensive. With little competition, companies can charge more and extending fast internet options like fiber optic cables across the land between farms and homes can cost a lot. Sural says there are billions of dollars in federal funding to expand internet access in America, but better information is needed to pinpoint where the greatest needs lie.
To find out, the North Carolina information technology department is conducting another survey.
Jeff Sural (03:42):
On our website ncbroadband.gov, there’s a link to a survey and speed test that we built with the Friday Institute. And the survey only takes about five minutes, and we’ll ask you several questions about your internet service, including your satisfaction with your internet service, whether you get cell phone service at your home. You can take a speed test, and it’s very simple. You just click a button and within several seconds you will be shown how fast your internet service is. So, that data is sent back to us and we’re able to pinpoint where this speed test was taken and we take the survey results. And then that helps us make informed decisions, particularly about funding.
Dee Shore (04:28):
Sural’s office administers the state’s rural broadband grant program. In part, that program encourages companies to extend services.
Jeff Sural (04:37):
We’ve been looking at different business models, so to speak. And what we found is, in many rural areas that have electric membership cooperatives or telephone membership cooperatives, that those models tend to work very well.
Also, there’s a number of small businesses out there that are starting to serve customers in some of these rural areas. Their overhead is lower, they don’t necessarily report to shareholders, access to capital is a challenge, but with all these new grant programs that are available through the federal government and at the state government, that access is becoming easier, I hope. And we’re seeing some new market entrance that should help in these rural areas.
Dee Shore (05:21):
Another state organization that’s helping with issues related to rural broadband is NC State Extension. Kenny Sherin doubles as Randolph County’s extension director, and the state extension coordinator of broadband access and education. He helps link extension agents with the knowledge they need to help communities and individuals put broadband to work. He sees affordable broadband access and adoption as a community and economic development challenge and a stumbling block for many farmers.
Kenny Sherin (05:57):
Rural broadband is often the missing link in the chain. Farmers grow, with air quotes around it, grow data along with crops now. They are accustomed to hauling the crops to market, put it on the truck and take it to the grain elevator. But it would be nice that they didn’t have to put their data on a jump drive and drive it to a place where they can connect.
So bringing broadband to the farm would open up many opportunities to be able to share and upload data to an agronomy service they’re using and upload that data that the combine gathers as they harvested the field so they can manage their inputs the next year better, that would help them increase their productivity and decrease their costs by applying chemicals and inputs in places where they need it the most and not where they don’t need it the most.
Dee Shore (06:55):
One farmer whose experienced internet challenges is Beverly Mooney of Millstone Creek orchards in Randolph County. Customers come to her 80-acre farm to buy the fruit and other food she produces, and she depends on the internet to run our operation.
Beverly Mooney (07:12):
During peak season, we’re running six credit card machines, and they run all day. At times, we will be doing as many as 10 to 12 transactions a minute across the board. And without good internet, it is a real nightmare. It slows down the transactions, which makes the guest experience waiting a little bit longer, so that’s challenging. But at times it can’t handle the data, and it’ll say, “Not going to approve it for you. Do you want to accept this payment offline?” If you cannot accept money, you can’t really operate a business.
Dee Shore (07:48):
Mooney also depends on the internet for buying, purchasing, keeping track of sales, recording employees’ timecards, and planning for the future.
Beverly Mooney (07:59):
It’s crucial for planning next year operations. We look at those numbers and what was good? What was not good? Why was it not good? So I look at those numbers to go and then try to figure out why they are the way they are. And it really helps in planning, from staffing to supplies to product, everything.
Dee Shore (08:21):
In looking to the future, Mooney is hopeful for better internet because she’d like to add advanced digital security cameras and a weather station where she could collect and analyze data to help her decide when to spray chemicals to manage plant diseases.
Another farmer who struggled with his internet connection is Robert Knight of Stokes County. He produces grains and timber on a farm that spans several hundred acres. He’s concerned about operational efficiency, getting higher yields with fewer expenses. That’s because he’s been fighting what he calls an uphill battle since he transitioned away from tobacco in 2005.
To find ways to turn a profit, he recently began to test agritourism by holding a farm heritage day. We spoke recently by cell phone, the same one he used to connect to Facebook to successfully advertise the event.
Still, using his phone as a hotspot doesn’t allow him to take advantage of all the internet has to offer. The arrangement proved especially difficult when his children needed to connect with school when it went online.
Robert Knight (09:35):
It worked, but it’s very limited what we can do. It uses a lot of data. And at peak times when you really need it, it can be very slow.
Dee Shore (09:43):
Knight says the lack of solid internet connectivity also proved challenging when field days and other educational opportunities by Cooperative Extension and other organizations went online. He said those events are vital when it comes to keeping his pesticide license and staying up to date on such things as the best seed varieties and new methods of fertilization.
Knight also views better internet connectivity as key to keeping his farm efficient during a time when profit margins are slim. He thinks investment in broadband could go a long way.
Robert Knight (10:20):
The way I like to paint this picture for people is, I’m a seventh generation on this farm. My great grandpa was a commissioner when they started putting in iron bridges and telephone lines in the early 1900s. And I’ve actually got a newspaper article about him driving through Danbury in 1914 on a steam engine that he just had bought to power a sawmill and the farm with. And he was able to expand his operation with that piece of equipment because the investment that the county made to put the bridges in so that he was able to move his equipment in here to saw lumber, and then also get the lumber out of here.
And then the phone lines, we all know that really took off. So those investments that were made early on that some people probably didn’t realize what effects it could have positively is the same thing we’re looking at now. I think the possibilities are endless. I don’t think we all have really wrapped our mind around yet exactly what it’s going to do, but I’ve just got the gut feeling that it’s going to open up a lot of opportunities. And that’s one thing that farmers really need right now is extra opportunity, whatever that may be.
Dee Shore (11:34):
Extension’s Kenny Sherin agrees.
Kenny Sherin (11:37):
One of the biggest imperatives, and I believe this with my heart, for getting farmers connected to rural broadband is innovation. Farmers are some of the most innovative people in the world.
I grew up with one, I saw him make things out of nothing to get the job done. He didn’t do it for the patents, he didn’t do it for the glory of it. He just had a job that needed to be done, and he created the tool to do it with.
And that’s just what farmers do. And if we can add broadband technology in that toolbox, I think we would see innovations that would bloom out of that technology that just blows our mind.
Dee Shore (12:27):
Thanks for listening today, and I hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of Farms, Food, and You. To learn more about the college of agriculture and life sciences and our podcasts, visit go.ncsu.edu/farms. While you’re there, share your thoughts. We’d love to get your ideas and to hear what topics you’d like for us to explore in the future.
Beverly Mooney operates Millstone Creek Orchards in Ramseur with her husband, Nick. The 80-acre farm was started by her father as a retirement occupation. He planted fruit trees and opened the farm to the public for you-pick operations, hayrides and picnics. Today, the farm produces blueberries, blackberries, peaches, grapes, pumpkins and pecans – “a little bit of a lot of things,” as Mooney puts it. It’s also a popular agritourism destination.
Robert Knight grew up in Rockingham County, the son of a teacher and a lineman for a power company and the grandson of two tobacco farmers. He spent most summers working on his maternal grandfather’s farm in Stokes County. After graduating from high school in 2004, he started farming tobacco. The next year, after the tobacco buyout that ended federal quota and price support programs, he turned his attention to grains and timber. Now he’s begun to explore agritourism opportunities for his seventh-generation farm.
Kenny Sherin serves as both state coordinator of broadband access and education and Randolph County director for North Carolina Cooperative Extension. He grew up on a family farm in fast-growing Union County. Recognizing the development pressures, his father encouraged him to find an off-farm job. Sherin went on to earn a doctorate in rural sociology and community development from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He has worked for Extension in both Missouri and South Dakota, and he returned to North Carolina in 2019.
Jeff Sural is broadband infrastructure director for the North Carolina Department of Information Technology. He grew up in Greensboro and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a law degree from Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School. He spent 15 years in Washington, D.C., in policy and legislative liaison roles. The broadband infrastructure office he leads works to expand and enhance broadband access to all North Carolinians.
- “A Case for Rural Broadband,” U.S. Department of Agriculture (PDF)
- “Internet Connectivity and Farms in North Carolina,” North Carolina Department of Information Technology (PDF)
- North Carolina Broadband Survey, North Carolina Department of Information Technology
- “Modern Farms are Connected Farms,” North Carolina Farm Bureau (PDF)