Broadband Critical for AgTech Development

This is a guest post from Refresh Working Group member Amy Wu, founder and chief content creator of From Farms to Incubators, a multimedia initiative that spotlights women in food, farming, and agtech. She is also a member of the Refresh Working Group Broadband Committee.

City of Salinas, “Salad Bowl of the World,” moves to fiber optic cables

The City of Salinas, in transforming itself from pure traditional agriculture hub – its moniker is `Salad Bowl of the World’ – to an agtech mecca, is moving forward on dark fiber and wireless network expansions. Agriculture is a major economic driver in the Salinas Valley, a $9 billion industry that produces roughly 80 percent of the leafy greens in the U.S. Since it started building the agtech sector in 2013, the city has celebrated numerous milestones including launching the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, which now includes 55 plus agtech startups.

The city’s plans to modernize and build infrastructure for broadband offers some important lessons. “Unfortunately, infrastructure projects move at a different pace than entrepreneurial development does, so the updates can be few and far between.  We’re expecting the first leg of the dark fiber network to be complete in early 2020,” wrote Andy Myrick, the city’s economic development manager, in a recent update. Salina is emerging as an example of how collaborations between local economy, government, innovation and community can work.

Salinas is moving in the right direction, and there are other bright lights on the horizon. Emporia, Kansas (population 25,000) celebrated newly installed broadband system and assistance from the Rural Innovation Initiative, and is moving toward being a rural tech hub.

AgTech Needs Broadband

Agtech and broadband are synonymous; both rely on each other to thrive. More broadly, a successful agriculture and agtech sector and thriving local economy depend upon broadband access. But the irony is that broadband is rarely part of the agtech discussion. At many agtech summits and conferences, broadband is rarely a part of the conversation. Consider this: broadband and precision ag—which allows growers to manage their operations via tools including data analytics and satellite imagery—go hand in hand.

In 2016, the U.S. had 2.1 million farms, over 911 million acres of land. The average land size, according to the report, is 442 acres and nearly 100 percent are still family owned, according to the USDA. The reality though is that broadband is sorely lacking in many places in the county, especially in rural or smaller communities where the majority of farms continue to operate. Only 58 percent of households in rural America had broadband access as of January 2018, according to research by the Pew Institute. And broadband is often spotty and unreliable in rural places with broadband.

Moreover, limited internet access also impacts educational opportunities and knowledge exchanges, critical resources for farmers who seek to digitize and optimize their operations. Beyond the digital divide, the agriculture industry is also confronting climate change and extreme temperature fluctuations, limited land and water supplies, a severe labor shortage, declining farmland, and issues around farm succession. Simply put, farmers need digital tools to address these myriad challenges.

Making Rural Broadband a Priority

Precision ag often involves GPS and or satellite navigation systems and in some cases agricultural drones that include hyperspectral or RGB cameras to capture images of fields. These technologies help growers collect information and data that are used to provide insights on everything from soil and water optimization to precision planting. Broadband is an essential part of equipping farm equipment with information technology devices. It is up to local government and policymakers to push for broadband access and make it a priority for their communities. Specifically, policymakers need to rally for 5G broadband in rural areas.

Salinas is rallying to bring broadband to local farms. Part of that effort includes hosting the annual Forbes AgTech Summit, which has become a premiere conference for the agtech sector. The city has also joined forces with the four neighboring cities that make up the Salinas Valley for workforce development that focuses on agech and healthcare.

The bottom line is that broadband is the answer to success in agriculture and essential as part of the agtech revolution, and consumers will ultimately benefit from these innovations.


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