An alarming 60% of U.S. farmers say they do not have enough connectivity to run their businesses, according to a new study commissioned by the United Soybean Board (USB).
Slow, unreliable internet connection is common, regardless of connection type and location, according to the study, “Rural Broadband & the American Farmer: Connectivity Challenges Limit Agriculture’s Economic Impact & Sustainability.”
The study investigated fixed, satellite, cellular and hotspot connections and found that farmers do not agree that their internet access provides value for the cost either in their offices (65%) or in their fields (77%). Also, because their farms can’t move, 78% of farmers do not have another viable option to change service providers.
Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service indicates that farming contributes to nearly $133 billion of the country’s gross domestic product. Based on USB’s rural broadband survey, the lack of connectivity negatively affects farmers who are responsible for $80 billion of gross domestic product.
In 2019, rural residents were 12% less likely to have broadband access. Though that gap is narrowing, a 2018 survey found that 24% of rural adults say getting access to high-speed internet is a major local problem.
“End users ask farmers to deliver a consistent and high-quality crop without adequate internet access and reliable broadband speeds, which undoubtedly impacts their efficiency and sustainability,” USB vice president of sustainability strategy Tim Venverloh stated.
The survey found that 40% of farmers have a fixed internet connection, while others rely on satellite connections. Most farmers rely on cell signals or hotspots to connect to the internet, and 60% of farmers say the internet service they do have is slow.
“There’s a clear disparity between connectivity in rural versus non-rural areas,” Venverloh said. “The lack of connectivity, however, extends to farmers past the farm gate. When farmers can’t maximize the functionality of their equipment, particularly in the middle of the field, it has repercussions beyond the farm. More and more of the future is about data and data transfer. The timely dissemination and use of data is becoming more important in a precision ag and decision ag world.”
The study found that 67% of farmers believe it is at least moderately important to be able to transfer data wirelessly from the field. An estimated nine out of 10 use a cellphone for internet access in their fields. Only 19% of farmers rate their internet in the field as fast, and only 22% said it was reliable.
Further, only 32% of farmers consider their office internet reliable, while 49% believe that their fixed office connections are adequate to manage their business.
The results of the qualitative and quantitative research highlight the critical need to improve rural broadband access, which has implications far beyond quality of life (information, communication and entertainment) in addition to the livelihood for rural communities.
“Farmers continually look for ways to improve efficiencies while protecting natural resources," Venverloh said. "Upwards of 50% of the farmers we surveyed want to incorporate more technology into their operations, but they are held back by limited connectivity. Improving their access to broadband needs to be a priority.”
The study found that most farmers plan on (59%) or are considering (28%) incorporating more data into making day-to-day decisions within the next year. These daily decisions support their economic and environmental sustainability. However, they face internet-related barriers, including slow speeds (21%), costs (20%), reliability (16%) and lack of access (15%). In the 18 months before being surveyed, nearly one-third said internet connectivity affected their purchasing decisions to upgrade farm equipment.
More than 2,000 primary and secondary farm operators responded to a combination of online and mail-in surveys to participate. USB said other groups involved included the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Assn., Illinois Soybean Assn. and North Carolina Soybean Producers Assn. The report represents a cross-section of U.S. agriculture. Participants included 86% who grow field or row crops such as corn and soybeans, 21% who grow specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables and 55% who raise livestock. In-depth telephone interviews were also conducted with participants in eight states in July and August 2019.