Farmers need high-speed Internet access

A lot goes into keeping South Carolina agriculture strong.

That's a rather obvious statement when talking about farming, but I am not simply referring to the cost of seed and fertilizer, or hay and grain, or fuel and repair parts. I am talking about the amount of information that has to be processed monthly, weekly, daily or even hourly, such as price changes, weather forecasts, or legislative and regulatory updates.

Any farmer nowadays will tell you that critical information such as I have described must be very timely or it can impact the bottom line as much as improperly calibrating a fertilizer spreader. And timely information in 2011 and beyond is not over the telephone or the local parts store counter - it's via high-speed Internet access.

What about the farmers' neighbors in rural South Carolina? The Department of Agriculture has been promoting the advantages to our health and our economy of buying fresh, local food. Gasoline is too expensive not to let your computer point you in the right direction to find who has what to sell. Again high-speed Internet access plays a critical role. As easy as that might sound, some in South Carolina, especially those of us in rural communities, don't have broadband or the high-speed Internet service needed to access this information in the way that makes it most useful.

The availability of mobile broadband also eases the burden of communication between farmers and their suppliers and purchasers, enabling a more streamlined and efficient business model. In the competitive world of agricultural production and marketing, business efficiency is no different from a tractor cab as any other part of our economy. The volatility that has hit Wall Street can affect the commodity markets just as quickly and a few hours can make or break a season's harvest.

Because many South Carolina farms and agribusinesses naturally find themselves in rural areas, broadband is not always available to many of them. The solution to this problem is multifaceted, but several projects currently under way could help. Connect South Carolina, for one, is a public-private initiative working with the Office of the Governor and our state's broadband providers to map broadband availability in hopes of identifying areas that most need access.

Meanwhile, the planned merger between communications provider AT&T and T-Mobile USA could help fill gaps in accessibility by providing our state's farmers, consumers, and agribusinesses with faster, more reliable, and more widely available access to high-speed Internet. One particular improvement may be an increased coverage area of the speed from the 4G LTE network. Living in rural South Carolina as I do, just out of high-speed range, I imagine many farmers look forward to this improvement.

Our mission at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture is to create opportunities for our farmers to thrive. To carry out our mission, we look for solutions on which to make those opportunities easier to capitalize. High-speed access to information from the Internet is one of those solutions.

Hugh Weathers is commissioner of agriculture for South Carolina. He co-owns Weathers Farms Inc., a dairy ownership business, and Weathers Trucking Inc., a bulk milk delivery service for more than 30 dairies. Commissioner Weathers and his wife, Blanche, live on their farm in Bowman and have three sons.


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