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RD’s ReConnect Program: Supporting Agricultural Innovation by Bridging the Digital Divide

Posted by USDA Rural Development Administrator of Rural Utilities Service Chad Rupe in Broadband Rural Technology
Sep 02, 2020
The Till Family Farm in Orangeburg County
The Till Family Farm in Orangeburg County is a five-generation operation that raises specialty crops as well as cattle, corn, and soybeans. (Front L-R are Whitney and Jeff Till, farm owners, as well as Jacob Till, Jeff’s father and co-owner. Behind them is Jeff and Whitney’s son Tyler, the farm operator)

Advances in technology, automation, and remote sensing is a cross-cutting, macro movement in science impacting agriculture outlined in the USDA Science Blueprint (PDF, 2.6 MB). The Science Blueprint guides USDA’s science priorities for the next 5 years, building from past success. Relative to other crops, many specialty crops are more dependent on agricultural labor for production, harvesting, and processing. This is part of a blog series that highlights investments to advance automation and mechanization for specialty crops. A Case for Rural Broadband: Insights on Rural Broadband Infrastructure and Next Generation Precision Agriculture Technologies (PDF, 2.5 MB) highlights the capacity for farmers and ranchers to implement digital technologies, automate processes, increase productivity, and expand into the global market with access to reliable, high-speed broadband.

Often when we think of rural broadband, we think about how internet access has revolutionized the way Americans consume media, conduct business, learn, and receive medical care via telemedicine. Over the last two decades, USDA has been making significant progress in connecting rural communities to the same telecommunications infrastructure enjoyed by their urban counterparts. However, the untapped potential of high-speed broadband also extends into the new technologies farmers and ranchers use to feed and clothe the world.

The production of specialty crops increasingly relies on digital technologies in the planning, production, and market coordination stages of agricultural management. Developments in Precision Agriculture technologies resulting from increased federal investment in rural e-Connectivity could result in approximately $47-65 billion annually for U.S. agricultural producers. E-Connectivity allows producers to collect data about what, when, and where to produce certain crops. They can also utilize real-time sensing and automated harvesting processes on site to improve yields and enhance labor efficiencies.

Digital technologies give American farmers and ranchers access to a global market through online sales, multi-media advertising, and by optimizing distribution networks. Remote work capabilities allow producers to transcend traditional geographic boundaries to attract the best and brightest minds to their operation. Cutting-edge decision support software, smart irrigation systems, and automated harvesting equipment promote sustainable input use and management efficiencies. These advancements not only support American producers, but they also require a consistent and reliable high-speed connection.

In the 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress provided $600 million to the Broadband Pilot Program, that we are now calling the ReConnect Program, which focuses on areas that completely lack or have insufficient broadband service. In Fiscal Year 2019, an additional $550 million was added to the program by Congress. In Fiscal Year 2020, Congress appropriated an additional $555 million to the program.

The ReConnect Program offers unique federal financing and funding options in the form of loans, grants, and loan/grant combinations to facilitate broadband deployment in areas of rural America that don’t currently have sufficient access.

In May 2020, USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) completed the announcement of the first round of awardees under the FY 2019 Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA). A total of 82 awards were made impacting 34 states across America. The investment represents $744,303,168 in grant and loan funding for high-speed broadband infrastructure projects. These 82 critical investments will connect approximately 13,000 farms, enabling them to enhance and utilize precision agriculture technologies for specialty crop production.

Category/Topic: Broadband Rural Technology