Last legislative session, the Virginia General Assembly passed a budget that included $19 million in funding for expansion of broadband services to rural Virginia. The Virginia Agribusiness Council was supportive of that funding being included in the budget, but more is needed to ensure every Virginian has access to high-speed internet.
The Virginia Agribusiness Council is a member-based trade association representing Virginia’s agriculture and forestry industries throughout the commonwealth. Combined, the two industries contribute $91 billion and 442,000 jobs to Virginia’s economy. However, the industry faces challenges, as all businesses do, if we do not have access to broadband services. This is especially true in rural Virginia, where local economies rely on agriculture now more than ever.
Modern agriculture requires more and more technology to keep the business operation running smoothly. Several of our agricultural lending members offer classes and educational materials for farmers to allow them to diversify and build better, stronger businesses. Access to these classes is still limited by lack of broadband access in rural areas. Some farmers have to drive a great number of miles into the nearest town, often having to bring their entire family, and spend hours in coffee shops or restaurants in order to gain access to public internet to take these courses. The time wasted in transit is less time spent growing their business.
Producers want to practice sustainable agricultural techniques and limit nutrient applications on their land in an effort to properly conserve resources. Precision agriculture allows farmers to limit inputs to the soil and save money by reducing fertilizer use at the same time. There is GPS technology and software which is mounted on a tractor that allows a farmer to map and spread fertilizer where necessary, without spreading excess. Drones are being used to map properties and allow farmers to create nutrient management plans to manage resources and maximize yields. However, the GPS and mapping technology does not provide these benefits without broadband to process the data in real time. To maximize our conservation efforts and properly care for our environment, broadband access is critical.
With prices being down for many commodities, many operations are turning to agritourism on their farms as an additional source of revenue. Agritourism offers added income for the farm as well as generates interest and enthusiasm in rural Virginia again. Virginia should be encouraging these operations to experiment with events on the farm as much as possible. However, many customers of these farms want access to data and internet while visiting an agritourism event. Offering broadband to potential customers can make or break an agritourism operation.
The Virginia Agribusiness Council supports efforts to expand funding for affordable broadband internet access to expand economic opportunities to rural Virginia. That is why we have joined The Commonwealth Connect Coalition, a coalition of businesses, broadband providers, nonprofits and trade associations, all dedicated to bringing universal broadband access to every Virginian. The council will join these organizations this upcoming General Assembly to continue to advocate for funding for the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), the grant program funding last-mile broadband deployment in unserved communities.
Virginia’s number one industry — agriculture — continues to diversify and adapt to the changing times. If Virginia wants to continue supporting this critical sector, access to broadband for the commonwealth’s agribusinesses is a necessity. The Virginia Agribusiness Council urges the General Assembly to continue funding broadband programs which expand high-speed internet access to the unconnected communities of the commonwealth.
Shreve is the Executive Director for the Virginia Agribusiness Council, a Richmond-based nonprofit organization representing the agriculture and forestry industries in Virginia. He wrote this column for The News & Advance. Learn more at Va-Agribusiness.org.