The Digital Divide in Rural America

rural internet,farmers,agriculture

A recent USDA report on farm computer usage and ownership found that 52 percent of farmers rely on smartphones to conduct farm business.  As a result, agricultural advisors are turning to smartphone apps to deliver research-based information via a platform that is easily accessible by as many people as possible.

Damon Smith, an extension specialist and epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes it is “natural to go the route of mobile apps because everyone is carrying a smartphone now.”  He and his team have developed three free apps based on disease forecasting models for corn and soybean production in the Great Lakes region.  Sporecaster, one of these apps, is designed to help farmers predict the need for fungicide application to control white mold in soybeans. The app uses university research to turn a few simple taps on a smartphone into an instant forecast of the risk of apothecia being present in a field, which helps growers predict the best timing for white mold treatment.

High-speed Internet access, or broadband, is critical to economic opportunity but there are many parts of the country where it is unavailable.  97 percent of Americans have access to high-speed service in urban communities, but that number falls to 65% in rural areas.  Closing the digital divide is necessary for America’s farmers and ranchers to access apps like Sporecaster and conduct farm business on-site. 

Agriculture is an increasingly technology-driven field, therefore farmers and ranchers’ access to the Internet to conduct business is exceedingly important.  The USDA launched its Broadband ReConnect Program in 2019 which offers unique federal financing and funding options to facilitate broadband deployment in areas of rural America that do not currently have sufficient access to broadband.  The USDA has invested $744 million since October 2019 to bring high-speed broadband e-Connectivity to 172,000 households, 19,000 rural small businesses and farms, and more than 500 healthcare centers, educational facilities and critical community facilities in 34 states.