‘Last Acre Act’ Would Create New USDA Rural Broadband Loan/Grant Program

U.S. growers and livestock producers increasingly rely on the internet across the farm and ranch, yet many still don’t have access to it. A report the USDA released in August, “Technology Use, Farm Computer Usage and Ownership,” found that 15 percent of farms and ranches have no access to the internet, according to drovers.com

A bill recently introduced in Congress looks to change that by expanding high-speed broadband internet access across rural America. Two members of the House Agriculture Committee, Reps. Brad Finstad (R-MN) and Yadira Caraveo (D-CO), introduced the “Linking Access to Spur Technology for Agriculture Connectivity in Rural Environments (Last Acre) Act.” If passed, the Last Acre Act would create a new competitive grant and loan program at the USDA to expand broadband access across eligible farmland, ranchland, and farm sites.   

The FCC defines minimum broadband internet service as internet access with a minimum of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps or more. The agency recently opened a Notice of Inquiry that proposes to increase the minimum benchmark to 100/20 Mbps, Inside Towers reported.

In its research, USDA found 51 percent of internet-connected farms use a broadband connection while 75 percent of connected farms have access through a cellular data plan. Additionally, 69 percent of farms have a desktop or laptop computer while 82 percent of farms have a smartphone, according to drovers.com.

“As a farmer, I understand the important role precision ag technology plays in increasing production and maximizing efficiency. Yet, many rural areas don’t have reliable access to the wireless connectivity needed to use these techniques,” said Finstad.

“The Last Acre Act will help drive agricultural innovation into the 21st century by bringing the latest farming technology and tools to every corner of farm country, giving farmers and ranchers – in even the most remote areas – greater ability to adopt precision ag applications and ensure optimal efficiency in their operations,” Finstad added.

Increasingly, legislators and broadband providers have fine-tuned how they look at the internet needs of rural America, according to Mitchell Bailey, CEO for GRM Networks, a member-owned cooperative that supplies broadband and other communication services to residents in parts of northern Missouri and southern Iowa. “The terminology used has changed from ‘fiber to the premise,’ which focused on connecting homes to more of a focus on ‘fiber to the acre,’ because we understand the need to make sure we’re connecting every acre of farmland to advanced technology,” Bailey told Farm Journal

“In an ever-changing marketplace, it is imperative that corn farmers use the latest in precision agriculture technology to remain competitive and sustainable, and this is only possible through access to high-speed broadband,” added National Corn Growers Association President Harold Wolle. 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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