8News: Without broadband expansion, Virginia farmers will fall behind, U.S. Sec. Agriculture says

8NEWS, JACKIE DEFUSCO

Expanding broadband to the 35 percent of rural Americans who still don’t have access to high speed internet is critical to keep the country’s agriculture industry competitive and to protect the environment.

That was the message on Friday when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger for a round table with about 50 Virginia farmers at Featherstone Farm in Amelia County, Virginia.

The farm has been in the Whittington family for generations but, within the last six months, a broadband installation has enabled them to be more productive using precision agriculture.

According to Colin Whittington, their tractors use wireless internet and GPS technology to collect data. He said that information is used to map the soil to determine exactly where to plant seeds and how much fertilizer to use in different areas.

“We’re limiting wasting resources,” Whittington said.

Now, with access to broadband, he’s able to view that data in real time to track trends and maximize output.

The roll out of broadband and precision agriculture technology on farms and ranches could result in at least $47 billion in national economic benefits annually, according to a 2019 report from USDA.

“Technology is not going backwards, it’s going forwards,” Whittington said. “As new things come out, it is going to be necessary.”

But you don’t have go too far from this farm of the future to find people still living in the digital dark ages.

“These projects are popping up across the county but, as a whole, our community just needs more access,” said Robin Whittington.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal, dubbed the American Jobs Plan, is still being negotiated in Congress but it calls for a $100 billion investment to connect every American with usable broadband.

“This country needs to make an investment in infrastructure to the largest extent if we are going to remain competitive because our competitors are not stopping,” said Sec. Vilsack.

Spanberger said a major infusion of federal cash is urgent to reach full coverage, especially in rural areas where investments aren’t profitable for the private sector. Historically, she said expansion has been driven by smaller grant programs and local co-ops.

“We have to move past that patchwork effort because when there is a patchwork there are still holes and many of those holes are in the communities I represent,” Spanberger said.

Enabling more farmers to use precision agriculture could also have an environmental impact. For example, with the help of high speed internet, farmers can waste less water and pesticides.

“There is a key desire on the part of farmers, if they have the right resources, to be able to do the right thing for the land, the water and the air,” Vilsack said.

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