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Farming America and the Digital Divide

Farming America and the Digital Divide

As many Americans march forward with new technology to make their lives easier, there is a portion of the population being left behind–waiting to access new technologies and new applications. Broadband access and fiber-optic telephone lines may seem like standard amenities, but for many in rural America, it is a matter of access and affordability.

Max Runge, an economist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System said there are both pros and cons to adopting new technology and all of the information that comes with it.

“New technology has the ability to pay for itself,” Runge said. “There can be a significant cost for the items needed in precision agriculture and they can become outdated in a few years. With the high costs of production, even a conservative estimate can save $25 or more per acre. It is hard to assign specific values because each farm is different and facing a wide range of situations.”cotton

Alabama Cooperative Extension Cotton Specialist, Dr. Dale Monks said he sees producers on both ends of the spectrum.

“There are many producers in the rural areas of Alabama I visit that don’t have access to broadband internet and don’t have reliable cell phone service,” said Monks. “Some larger farms have been able to adopt new information technology and the tools that come with it, while  there are smaller farms who cannot financially justify the costs.”

The Divide

 Monks said a continuing lack of awareness about agriculture in the American population is contributing in part to this pressing issue, the “digital divide.”

“Our food supply is abundant and our food is cheap,” Monks said. “These two things help facilitate the mindset that many people have: ‘If food is cheap, it must not  be difficult to produce it.’”

Technology brings with it a significant learning curve in many cases.

“The learning process is now two-fold,” Runge said. “Producers must first learn to use the equipment and then figure out how to use the information gathered with each trip across the field.”

Aside from new generations not growing up on a farm, Monks said there is an additional divide in the agricultural sector. First, there is the older generation of farmers who are content with their methods and have done well without precision technology. Second, there are farmers of the younger generations that see the usefulness of the technology and are willing to try it on their own operation.

The Digital Age

 Monks said there are two questions facing producers today with respect to digital information:GPS

  • How do you get the information?
  • What do you do with all of the information you generate?

In areas where there is no reliable internet access, producers are having a difficult time finding and sharing important information. With the crop market apps for iPhone and Android, producers are able to watch market prices fluctuate on mobile devices and book their crops at the best price as soon as it becomes an option. This problem also leads to issues sharing information back and forth with professionals who can offer assistance from a remote location.

In precision agriculture, every trip across the field brings an influx of information for the producer to consider. Yield monitors, GPS technology, precision soil sampling, and (soon to be) drones compile mountains of information that has to be processed into a useable format. This data will then help producers manage their crops and livestock better and make them more profitable.

Available Technology

Monks said this is one of the many ways Extension professionals are adapting to the changes in technology and making valuable resources readily available due in part to producers and their commodity groups and check-off programs.

While Runge is not contacted for crop diagnostics questions, he provides updated economic information on a weekly basis. He said farmers are excited to have Extension materials readily available in the field.

 

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