Broadband can meet the needs of emerging farmers and long standing rural residents to encourage rural growth

Today I attended the Agriculture and Food Finance and Policy Division meeting. I was hoping they might talk more about the Dep of Ag emerging farmers report but I got an interesting overview on hemp, research on ag versus rural economy and emerging farmers. Not as much broadband as I usually like – but an interesting glimpse at ag issues.

According to the State Demographer, Minnesota is diversifying. The percentage of people of color is projected to grow from 14 percent in 2005 to 25 percent by 2035. Also in 2035, the age 65+ group is expected to eclipse the under 18 population for the first time in Minnesota history. The 65+ group will rely on the tax base of the smaller, younger demographic. That’s a challenge. Balance that with the Demographer’s 2017 report (Greater Minnesota: Refined & Revisited,) that outlines differences between rural, urban, small town, larger town counties…

This report also reveals that many Minnesota counties are on the cusp of a new era of slowing or negative natural change, and will be more reliant on migration if they are to grow in the future. Future migration patterns, however, are more challenging to anticipate than natural change, as they are dependent on numerous variable factors—federal immigration policy, local and state economic conditions, changes in how and where workers work, and personal lifestyle preferences.

In short, the State demographer says that rural counties that want to grow need to be welcoming to new Americans. And if they want a strong tax base, they’ll want to entice young people. I’ve seen similar concepts and recommendations outlined in the Thriving by Design work from Growth and Justice. But there’s always a tension in change.

Listening to the emerging farmers, who include the demographic that a county needs to grow, they are pushing against some resistance or at least blindness to their needs. Even hearing about the hemp industry, it’s clear that a new approach to hemp is battling with old regulations and prejudices of marijuana.

It reminds me of when my oldest daughter was 15. She wanted to be a grownup. I wanted her to be a grownup. But we had different ideas of what that meant and how to get there. She’s 21 now and we’re a lot closer on our definitions but there were some heated conversations. I loved, especially during those dark years, when there was easy agreement.

Broadband availability is listed as a top theme in the emerging farmer report. It is a likely point of easy agreement because broadband extends beyond the needs of “emerging” farmers. For established farmers, broadband can support telehealth and help people stay at home. For non-farmers (The Center for Rural Policy started by talking about their nascent research on rural versus farm economy. They early observation seemed to find that the rural economy is larger than the farm economy.), broadband is a tool that supports economic development and education.

Broadband is a point of agreement. Broadband is a tool that helps everyone. Broadband is inherently useful but also useful as a way to unify the needs of new and “old” Minnesotans.

U.S. Senators Smith, Rounds, Fischer & Baldwin Host Bipartisan Rural Working Group Meeting in Washington

Big news on how Senator Smith and others are working with bipartisan leaders on rural issues…

Today, U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.)—leaders of the Bipartisan Senate Rural Working Group—hosted a kickoff event with rural leaders and stakeholders in Washington. The group, co-chaired by Sens. Smith and Rounds, seeks to connect people and organizations with ties to rural communities who want to help address the many unique challenges that often hit rural areas hard. The group also aims to identify successful ideas and partnerships to spur efforts to restore economic prosperity in rural communities across the country.
“I’ve been to rural communities and Tribal areas across Minnesota, and I’ve seen how leaders and organizations are coming together to do unique and innovative things to not only create jobs and economic development, but also tackle local problems,” said Sen. Smith. “At a time when you often only hear about the economic hardship in rural communities, I’ve been inspired by the spirit, resilience, and ingenuity of the people I’ve met in rural areas of Minnesota. I was so inspired that I decided to create a bipartisan Senate group aimed at highlighting what’s working in rural America, and I’m pleased to be joined by my colleagues and dozens of advocates who share that same goal.”

“South Dakota is a large, rural state. The Bipartisan Rural Working Group seeks to address the unique challenges facing rural areas, such as access to high-speed internet, health care, lending services and more. The success of rural America is vital for our long-term health and prosperity. I look forward to working with Sens. Smith, Fischer and Baldwin to advance the priorities of rural America in the Senate,” said Sen. Rounds.“Rural communities can’t be left behind and Washington must do a better job of helping them move forward. We need to do more to support the family farmers that drive the rural economy forward,” said Sen. Baldwin. “The federal government needs to step up and make investments that will expand rural broadband access, rebuild water infrastructure, increase affordable housing opportunities and support rural health facilities that are on the frontlines of the opioid epidemic. I’m excited to work with my colleagues to launch the new Bipartisan Rural Working Group to find common ground on solutions that will show rural America that Washington is working with them, and for them.”
“The heartland is not flyover country. It’s full of wonderful, selfless people who help feed and fuel the world. Those of us who live in rural America already know this, but we need to show Washington that our families, communities, innovators, and businesses are worth the investment. I am excited to participate in this bipartisan working group to develop solutions for rural America,” said Sen. Fischer.
At today’s meeting, advocates from a variety of different issues areas—including education, health care, agriculture, and housing—shared priorities for a stronger rural economy. You can access pictures from the event here.

 

Land O’Lakes’ Beth Ford promotes broadband to Economic Club of Minnesota

MPR News reports…

[Beth] Ford, who has headed the 99-year-old cooperative [Land O’Lakes] since 2018, called on more investment in broadband, education and health care. She said her company was even planning to launch a half-dozen rural “service centers” to aggregate high-speed internet, telemedicine and other amenities.

“Every business is a digital business now, every business is a technology business, and agriculture is one of the last sectors to be disrupted,” Ford said. “Especially by e-business and technology.”

She mentions agriculture and mental health…

Networked technology can help bring farming and food production back to profitability, she said, but it isn’t sufficiently available. She said that of the 24 million people who lack access to broadband technology, 19 million are in rural America.

That’s putting food producers at a disadvantage: not just in terms of the technology in their tractor cabs, but in the schools their kids attend, the clinics where they seek medical and mental health care and in the markets where they could find innovations in marketing and distribution, Ford said.

She talks about how big business can help in the community…

She called broadband access a $150 billion problem, and suggested it should be a national priority like rural electrification in the 1930s.

Ford also said Land O’ Lakes was talking to leaders from Microsoft, Amazon and other companies about direct action in some of the more than 7,000 communities where her cooperative has a presence.

“What we want to do is to directly be a convener. To take over a storefront if we can,” she said. “Drop a line in, get some high-speed internet. Have some boosters, have four or five work stations, where kids can access technology to do their homework… take Advanced Placement courses. Where they can pick up fresh groceries.”

Broadband helps agriculture more efficient – helps the environment

Agri Pulse reports…

These are the telltale signs of climate change challenges, but they can be met head-on with the kind of data that advanced broadband can deliver – when it’s available.

Today’s high-tech farming depends on data – from remote sensors, from tractors, irrigation equipment, nutrient application machinery, and harvesters that communicate. Sensors and tracking devices around a modern farm can pump out readings from soil moisture to fertilizer needs to climate conditions inside a chicken house.

The possibilities for productivity improvement, budget efficiencies, environmental benefits and the ability to respond to continually changing growing conditions are endless, but as one technologically-sophisticated farmer, Trey Hill of Harbor View Farmers, told one of us recently, “we generate a lot of data, we just don’t have the means to transport it.”

Turns out some folks are running their farms on off cell phones…

Trey operates his ten-thousand-acre farm – an operation often described as not only technologically sophisticated but environmentally so – on a cell network. He reaps huge benefits from his technology, turning on irrigation from his cell phone thus saving water and applying fertilizer only where he needs it, saving money and ending over use that is neither financially nor environmentally sustainable. But at what cost? Trey and other farmers are subject to giant cell phone bills and they are unable to access their technologies on fields that are remote and without cell coverage.

Another friend of ours in rural Maryland spends as much as $1,000 per month to run his agricultural operations off of a mobile cellular network.

They need better…

The lack of broadband in rural America isn’t a mystery. As best as the government can tell, less than 60% of rural America has access to broadband at 100 Mbps download speed; a typical speed – not even exceptionally fast – in other parts of the nation.

Moreover, not all internet access is advanced broadband. The USDA reported in 2019 that 22% of farmers used DSL technology, which is old and slow compared to what most Americans can access. Twenty-six percent of farms used satellite, which has broad coverage but tends to be more expensive and not as technically advanced. And three percent (more than 40,000 farms) still use dial-up, which was the go-to internet technology of the early 1990s.

So, it’s not just any old broadband that agriculture needs – it’s high-performance broadband.

Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford on rural broadband

Yahoo Finance reports on Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford conversation with  journalist Jessica Yellin at the 2020 Upfront Summit…

This week, the Federal Communications Commission approved a $20.4 billion program that could give six million rural homes and businesses access to high-speed broadband. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai calls the initiative the “boldest step yet to bridge this [digital] divide,” but the CEO of one of the largest dairy cooperatives said it’s simply not enough.

“It’s not that that’s nothing. I mean, that’s real money. But it’s inadequate. And then I meet constantly with governors, and they’re putting something- 10 million in the budget or 20 million… And it feels like we’re in the couch looking for the quarters and nickels. And that’s not going to get us there. It is going to make us uncompetitive as a nation. We cannot just leave these communities behind,” Land O’Lakes chief executive Beth Ford said in an interview Thursday at the Upfront Summit in Pasadena, California.

Senators Smith and Klobuchar ask Transportation to look at rural priorities including broadband

Transportation Today reports…

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Tina Smith (D-MN) recently sent a letter to the Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, urging the rural infrastructure priorities to be included in the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success initiative.hu

Constituents have voiced the priorities as part of the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success initiative, the senators said.

Rural Minnesotans expressed five priorities.

More than 16 percent of rural Minnesotans lack access to high-speed internet, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. U.S. Department of Transportation policies help streamline broadband deployment and reduce the costs of building new broadband infrastructure.

USDA Invests $11 Million in Broadband for Rural Minnesota and Iowa Communities

I already posted details on the CTC project, but here’s the general info on the USDA money coming into Minnesota (and Iowa)…

Today, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky announced USDA has invested $11 million in three, high-speed broadband infrastructure projects that will create or improve rural e-Connectivity for more than 1,395 rural households and nearly 120 businesses throughout several counties in Minnesota and northern Iowa. This is one of many funding announcements in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.

“When Americans are connected to high-speed internet, productivity and prosperity skyrocket,” Censky said. “This task of providing rural Americans with broadband is of the highest importance for President Trump and his Administration. We cannot leave millions of Americans out of the successes of this booming economy simply because they do not have access to the internet.”

Harmony Telephone Company will use a $2.7 million ReConnect Program loan and a $2.7 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network to connect 577 households, a health care center and a critical community facility spread over 143 square miles in several counties bordering southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

Osage Municipal Utilities (OMU) in northern Iowa will use a $397,749 ReConnect Program grant to provide broadband service to underserved households, farms and businesses in Mitchell County. This will be accomplished by directly accessing a fiber trunk line that runs through the heart of Mitchell, Iowa, and up to the border of Minnesota, allowing OMU to increase its service area bandwidth. The funded service area includes 151 households spread over 20 square miles.

Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) will use a $5.2 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network of up to one gigabit of symmetrical high-speed internet to nearly 700 homes and public facilities in portions of Cherry and Great Scott townships in Minnesota’s famed ‘Iron Range.’ CTC will leverage existing middle-mile infrastructure, in partnership with Northeast Service Cooperative, and require only an additional 157.1 miles of new FTTP construction. The funded service area includes 667 households, two educational facilities and two critical community facilities in St. Louis County.

Background:

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks.

These grants, loans and combination funds enable the federal government to partner with the private sector and rural communities to build modern broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service. Insufficient service is defined as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.

In December 2019, Agriculture Secretary Perdue announced USDA will be making available an additional $550 million in ReConnect funding in 2020. USDA will make available up to $200 million for grants, up to $200 million for 50/50 grant/loan combinations, and up to $200 million for low-interest loans. The application window for this round of funding will open Jan. 31, 2020. Applications for all funding products will be accepted in the same application window, which will close no later than March 16, 2020.

A full description of 2020 ReConnect Pilot Program funding is available on page 67913 of the Dec. 12, 2019, Federal Register (PDF, 336 KB). To learn more about eligibility, technical assistance and recent announcements, visit www.usda.gov/reconnect.

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force. To view the report in its entirety, please view the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB). In addition, to view the categories of the recommendations, please view the Rural Prosperity infographic (PDF, 190 KB).

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.