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Best of NAMA 2023

By Robert B. Engel, Chief Executive Officer, CoBank, as it appeared on

In a down commodity market, achieving higher yields from the same or fewer inputs is driving American farmers to be more precise than ever in how they manage their acres. U.S. farmers have always adapted and innovated, but now there is a significant transformation taking place in how farmers use both data and communications networks. In fact, you could argue that today, the data farmers harvest is almost as important as crops themselves to their business operations.

This new age of data-driven agriculture will take significant investment in, and ongoing support of, rural broadband infrastructure. And that investment can't come soon enough.

Precision agriculture technology today allows farmers to collect data on crop yields, fertility application rates, plant populations, soil moisture levels, plant health, crop maturity, weather conditions, insect damage and weed competition on every acre of every field. This wealth of data is collected in real time and transmitted via cellular and broadband networks to "the cloud," and then to desktop computers or farmers' hand-held mobile devices in the field to help them make better management decisions.

It's been a quiet but quick revolution; one that has huge implications for the farm productivity and profitability which is so critical to our nation's economy and well-being. It also places considerable onus on policymakers in Washington to support this critical need with sound public policy.

Turning better broadband into more bushels
The exponential growth of data-driven farm technologies is requiring farmers to continually upgrade their data plans with their cellular and broadband providers, increasing the need for both broadband and cellular coverage in rural America.

A large-scale farmer like Lon Frahm, who owns a 30,000-acre corn and wheat farm in Colby, Kansas, uses 30 to 40 gigabytes of data per month during peak usage in the fall as his combines collect yield data at harvest and upload the information directly to the cloud. Frahm's cellular data requirements today are quadruple what the farm used three years ago.

Every piece of equipment that Frahm runs collects data, recording every single nutrient or herbicide that gets put down. As recently as three years ago he had to use memory cards or USB thumb drives to transfer that data. Now everything is being transferred to the cloud via mobile networks.

The farm's 10 employees, including an IT specialist, each carry smartphones and tablets with them at all times, enabling them to share to-do lists, locate machinery anywhere on the farm and even know when it's time to deliver seed to the field during planting season without having to make a call to the tractor driver.

Bigger Data Needs - For Farms of All Sizes
The trend toward bigger farming operations spanning larger geographical areas shows no sign of slowing down. According to USDA's Census of Agriculture, the number of farms with more than 5,000 acres grew to 24,089 in 2012, up from 21,625 farms reported in the 1997 Census of Agriculture.

With large farmers commonly operating in multiple counties, states or even in other countries, the demand for remote monitoring technology with data moving through cellular networks is growing almost exponentially.

Ranch Systems, LLC, a farm information management company based in Novato, California, helps these farmers with remote monitoring and control on geographically dispersed properties. According to the company, because farmers want access to information using more and more devices, and the cost of those devices and electronics is going down along with the cost of data plans, mobile networks are the predominant channel for collecting data and getting it up into the cloud.

But it isn't just large farms that are capitalizing on precision ag technology. Small and medium-size operations are as well. Kevin Lauwagie, who farms 1,200 acres of corn and soybeans in Winthrop, Minnesota, carries an iPad with him at all times. The ability to pull up field maps and find crucial information during the growing season has helped him boost yields on every acre of the farm, while trimming production costs.

Becoming more efficient with every acre and every input cost is no minor issue, especially as commodity prices have retreated sharply. Lauwagie gains some efficiency because he has a better handle on where to spend money. And an extra five or six bushels an acre can be the difference between a profit and a loss in this period of lower commodity prices.

More data demands stronger networks
As data collection technology evolves-for example, through the use of remote sensors, drone technology or more precise and accurate field maps-farmers will be sending more data through wireless cellular networks.

Technology also allows farmers to manage large numbers of acres on a much more granular scale. Lon Frahm used to manage his farm by the field. Now he's narrowed it down to a grid of a few acres, and he's starting to work with companies that can take that to a 100-square-foot area grid.

There's no turning back the clock on agriculture which must compete in a global marketplace in a deflationary environment. Farmers must continue to benefit from reduced input cost and increased productivity with precision agriculture through ever-growing usage of data empowering information. This puts greater demand on mobile networks to provide reliable and efficient transfer of bigger data.

The greater demand for real-time data isn't just happening in New York or San Francisco where robust cellular networks exist, but also in rural areas where emerging pressure is taxing existing broadband networks. It will take ongoing and timely investments in broadband infrastructure to ensure technology-driven farmers have the ability to manage their operations at peak efficiency for greater financial and environmental sustainability.

Policy implications
However, the importance of and need for enhanced rural broadband networks doesn't end with agriculture. For all residents and businesses in rural communities, expanded broadband capacity is vital to maintaining our rural communities as desirable places to live and work by supporting current and future demands of commerce, health care, education, energy and public safety services.

With fewer subscribers per square mile in rural communities, the sizable capital costs associated with broadband and wireless deployment and maintenance are often cost-prohibitive. Communications companies need a sufficient and predictable level of funding through a sustainable cost-recovery mechanism to support the financing of rural broadband in high cost areas.

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has recognized the importance of a national effort to increase broadband access, and has established the Connect America Fund to support rural broadband and the associated Mobility Fund for rural wireless access. But more investment and support is needed!

Meeting the need for rural broadband access must remain a top priority for rural communication services providers and their national communications provider partners; as well as for financial institutions such as CoBank whose mission is to support their collaborative efforts to close the digital divide and serve rural businesses and communities. It is the whole economy - not just the rural economy - that will reap measurable benefits from universal access to enhanced broadband capabilities in rural America.

Robert B. Engel is chief executive officer of CoBank, a $117 billion bank serving agribusiness, rural infrastructure providers and Farm Credit associations throughout the United States.

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