Tech-savvy Michigan farmers seek better Internet for profits and environmental protection

The expansion of fiberoptic cables is one way to increase high-speed Internet access to rural farms. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons. The expansion of fiberoptic cables is one way to increase high-speed Internet access to rural farms. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons.

For farmers, tablets are becoming as common as tractors… and that means higher demand for broadband Internet access.

Farmers are increasingly turning to technology to track weather, map the spreading of fertilizers and seeds, and follow prices for input and services.

But Internet access in rural areas lags behind urban areas.

Around one-third of rural households and farms nationwide lack broadband Internet, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Although current state-by-state numbers are unavailable, the department once ranked Michigan rural areas among the nation’s worst for broadband access in 2008-09.

Lack of access in rural areas doesn’t mean a lack of interest — especially among farmers. During the days of dial-up Internet, subscription rates at rural farms were consistently higher than those of rural households, according to the report.

But dial-up isn’t cutting it anymore for agricultural operations, experts say, and broadband access in Michigan’s countryside is often too expensive or unavailable.

“By and large, farmers need Internet access and they need high speeds,” said Rick Gleason, a Wexford County Farm Bureau member.

Many members of the Wexford County Farm Bureau have farms in pockets of the county without Internet service, said Gleason. They have started referring to these areas as “black holes.”

When some farmers have access to check supply prices quickly while others don’t, the disparity causes “a competitive disadvantage,” Gleason said.

But these black holes may be getting a little brighter soon. Wexford is among several counties that aim to improve broadband access with Connect Michigan.

Connect Michigan is a public-private partnership with the Public Service Commission (PSC) that works with counties to create plans to improve Internet services. The plans include actions such as locating federal and state funding and reaching out to community leaders to promote projects for expansion.

Other counties eying broadband expansions include Marquette, Gladwin and Osceola. Clare and Mecosta counties have already created plans, certified by Connect Michigan, to increase Internet access for agricultural areas.

“My gut feeling is that even more counties are going to get on board with this in the near future,” said Judy Palnau of the PSC.

Palnau said farmers are growing increasingly aware of how technology can help their business.

“Broadband is one of the main ways we can help agribusiness these days,” she said. “It’s amazing what they can do now, between the maps and the GPS — it’s very science fiction-y.”

Jennifer Marfio, a Mecosta County Farm Bureau board member, is one of those using science fiction-like technologies. Broadband Internet is now an essential part of her farm.

Instead of treating a whole field the same, GPS allows farmers like Marfio to precisely meter amounts of fertilizer, pesticides or seeds for a specific area — saving money and product.

“We use our GPS to know exactly where we’ve covered with something and the exact amount of it,” said Marfio. “It saves us money and time. It’s better for the environment because we’re not over-spraying. It’s so much more efficient.”

Marfio said her husband Andrew, also a farmer, is constantly on his smartphone checking weather forecasts and comparing prices for services they outsource. Knowing the precise amount of fertilizer to buy or when to sell a product “makes a huge difference in profit and loss.”.

And everyone should have the same tools, she said.

“It’s the way of the future,” Marfio said. “Everyone should have access to it — particularly farmers.”

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