From Farm to Cloud: How Broadband Makes Smart Ag Brilliant
At 36 years old, Jason has worked on farms and ranches for 20 years. He was born only a few miles from the crop supply company where he now works in Moline, Michigan — an unincorporated community in the middle of West Michigan’s farm country. There’s no paved road to his job. To get there, he crisscrosses railroad tracks that run through town and, this time of year, drives past mounds of dry fertilizer and potash, ready to be spread in the adjacent fields.
Jason’s job is to collect silos worth of data — drone-based images detailed enough to track even small changes to a single leaf, real-time information about soil moisture and chemistry, LiDAR-based maps that identify the micro-climates within each plot of land, and bales of information gathered by sensors on his connected combines and sprayers.
When I visited with him a few weeks ago, it was clear that Jason has the tech expertise that would be in high demand 2,000 miles away in Silicon Valley. But he’s chosen to raise his family in Moline. He told me he’s never been more optimistic about the future of farming.
The challenge, Jason explained, is getting all of this data up into the cloud where it can be analyzed and put to productive use. This is where a quirk of history gives Moline an advantage. You see, the community got its start in the 1870s when the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railway passed through. Why does that matter? Today, broadband providers have run fiber along the tracks. So Jason was able to tie in to the broadband running along his operation.
Now, Jason can upload the gigabytes of data he collects and leverage the horse-power of cloud-based artificial intelligence to put this information to work.
The results are remarkable. Jason now sends real-time data to his connected combines that can make precise and dynamic adjustments, often on an inch-by-inch basis, to everything from the pace, depth, and type of seeding to the nature and amount of fertilizer. He can track and spot issues with individual plants before they become a problem for the entire crop. He even talked about an IoT device that can capture pests, upload their images, and then use AI to identify them and recommend a solution.
With these broadband-enabled, smart ag applications, Jason estimates that farmers are seeing at least a 30% increase in productivity and crop yields, not to mention a significant reduction in the use of fertilizer, pesticides, and water.
Jason’s operation in Moline is certainly advanced, but it isn’t unique.
Down the road in Three Rivers, Michigan, I stopped at family-run Walther Farms. Leonard Walther, Sr. started farming to supplement his work at a Buick engine plant near Flint in the 1940s. Now in its third generation as a family business, Walther Farms is one of the largest potato growers in the country. (In fact, if you’ve eaten a bag of potato chips East of the Mississippi, chances are that you’ve tasted a Walther Farms potato)
Leonard’s grandson now runs the operations, and technology is key. Since chip potatoes need to stay within a narrow temperature range from farm to factory, Walther Farms uses remote sensors to monitor and adjust the refrigeration in their cargo trucks. The Walther team talked about the problem of getting reliable broadband connectivity across their rural footprint — how they stitch together networks from fixed wireless, cellular, satellite, and fiber deployments — and the need to get the massive amount of data they collect from the farm to the cloud.
This was a problem I heard time and again on my drive through rural Michigan and Indiana. In West Lafayette, Indiana, I heard a line that stayed with me: “If you look on any farmer’s desk, you’ll probably see old coffee mugs full of USB storage drives.” Farmers now have the technology to collect an enormous amount of data, but they need a broadband connection to put it to work. One person we spoke with talked about coming home around eight o’clock at night after flying a drone over fields during the day and needing to stay up past midnight just because his slow Internet connection takes hours to upload that one day’s worth of images.
Sometimes it takes the modern-day version of duct tape and bailing wire to solve this broadband problem. In Arcadia, Indiana, family-run Beck’s Hybrids has built its own cloud computing system under one of their fields. Sonny Beck, whose farming operation dates back to 1901, talked about the computing power needed to combine data from connected tractors, drones, crop DNA files, and soil histories and then analyze all of this information so it can be used to make precision adjustments to seeding and real-time modifications in soil treatments.
I visited Beck’s with Congresswoman Susan Brooks, who is the co-chair of the congressional 5G Caucus. We learned about the hard work that goes into bringing next-generation wireless connectivity to the field. We spent time with a small Wireless Internet Service Provider, or WISP, and they explained how they set up a series of radios that formed a line-of-sight chain from the small town of Arcadia over 30 miles to Indianapolis. They’re a scrappy group. As they plotted their route from Indy, they looked for any tall structures on which to place their equipment, including barns and grain elevators. It’s tough work, and it was clear to me that they feel they’re doing a service to their rural communities.
Senator Todd Young also showed me the good work that is being done to bring greater connectivity to the Hoosier state.
One of our first stops was at Linda Muegge’s kitchen table. Linda lives in Blue River Township, a community of fewer than 1,500 people. She told me and Senator Young about the very real difference it makes when rural America gets a fair shot at next-gen connectivity.
Linda’s farm and house in Blue River is served by an electric co-op that has provided her with gigabit-speed fiber. Yes, the fast connection means HD Netflix, faster web browsing, and even some visits from neighbors who want to borrow her high-speed hookup.
But what struck me most in talking with Linda is what a difference that connection has meant to her family. You see, Linda’s son, Chris, went to grad school at Purdue for a degree in animal nutrition. Chris has used his degree to build a successful consulting business, mostly for cattle owners, with clients as far away as Costa Rica. Chris needs to see the cattle in HD and download large data sets to monitor their feeding and health. Without the high-speed connection, Chris would not be able to live in Blue River. Now, he can pitch in at the farm while continuing to pursue his own high-tech business.
Chris’s sister is expecting twins, their mom Linda told me (so cats out of the bag on that one), and she wanted to move close to her family as she raises children of her own. The challenge is that she has a job in marketing that requires a constant exchange of large video and image files. Without a high-speed connection, she wouldn’t have been able to buy a house down the road and keep her family close.
As we headed back to D.C., it was clear that we have work to do in helping to bring better, faster, and cheaper broadband to more Americans like Jason and Linda and to family businesses like Walther Farms and Beck’s Hybrids. We need to keep cutting the regulatory red tape that needlessly drives up the costs of deploying broadband infrastructure. We need to continue supporting rural broadband providers through programs like our Connect America Fund. And we need to remember the real impact that our often dense regulatory work can have on places like Moline, Three Rivers, Arcadia, and Blue River. I will keep them front of mind as we work towards connecting every community in our country with next-generation opportunity.