About 60% of rural US Internet households use broadband, according the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a full 10 percentage points lower than urban and suburban Internet households. Clearly, too few members of the creative class live there. Too few dress in black or wear ragged shorts and sandals to the office. They still use email, for God's sake, instead of direct-messaging their inner circle on Twitter. And if you can find a Starbucks out there in Nowheresville, you never hear anybody ordering a part-skim, part-soy double-shot macchiato. What possible use can they have for broadband?
It's a good question – and farmers have the answer. It turns out, according to the USDA, that 70% of farms with sales of at least a quarter million dollars use the Internet for farm business. Slightly over 40% of smaller farms are also online. "The Internet is such an integral part of doing business in agriculture," Dan Errotabere told the Associated Press, "If the power goes off, everything on the farm seems to stop."
Errotabere farms 3,500 acres (14 sq km) in the state of California. He and his staff use the Web to communicate with and deliver documents to government officials, manufacturers, packers and retailers. His staff catches up with pest control advisors via email, and Errotabere checks prices and trades agricultural commodity futures for his crops online.
Another California farmer, Alec Smith, says that one of the most important advances available online is in pest control. When plants show signs of disease, Smith's staff snaps photos and emails them to plant disease specialists at universities, who email back advice on combating the disease.
Mike Smith, who runs a small, 40-acre (162 sq m) farm in the same area, sells his crops directly to customers online. He posts photos of his farm on Facebook, updates the farm Web site weekly with available crops and runs a blog. Customers email their orders. "The Internet means survival to a lot of small farmers," he told the AP. "If you don't have a Web site, nobody's going to know about you."
I read an opinion piece this weekend by a writer for The Economist, who suggests that the key to getting the US economy growing again is to encourage higher population density in our cities. Cities produce a great deal of economic activity very efficiently, precisely because they are so densely populated. So if we were all packed a bit tighter, the logic goes, it would spin up the turbines of the economy. And maybe it would. But in my experience, people who don't already live in tightly-packed urban areas generally don't want to live there. What they want is economic opportunity that makes it possible for them to stay where they are now. And in rural areas as much as in urban ones, they increasingly see broadband as a channel that can deliver that opportunity.
Broadband is delivering one more value to farmers in rural areas. In France, according to the Agriculture Ministry, one of the threats to farming culture – a vital part of French identity – is loneliness. It is particularly acute among male farmers between 18 and 35, especially cattle farmers, who generally work longer hours. About 30 percent of male French farmers, and 36 percent of cattle farmers, did not have a partner in 2009.
Helping to ease that loneliness is atraverschamps.com or "acrossthefields.com," as well as other online dating sites reserved for farmers. Bertrand Blond, founder of a site called vachement.fr, told The New York Times that "“There is now an entire economy based on the farmer’s single status."
It is that kind of ingenuity in the use of broadband that will help rural citizens to protect and preserve the life they love.
Sources: "Report Shows More US Farmers relying on Internet" by Gosia Wozniacka, Associated Press, August 26, 2011. "One Path to Better Jobs: More Density in Cities" by Ryan Avert, The New York Times, September 3, 2011. "With Online Help, French Farmers Now Playing the Field" by MAÏA de la BAUME, The New York Times, August 30, 2011.