?Physical distancing?? may be a new term for most people, but it pretty much describes a normal day on our farm in Saskatchewan. Here on the prairies we?re completely surrounded by fields. Our closest neighbour can?t be seen with binoculars (and yes, I?ve tried).
As we start to learn about the importance of connection ?? to our neighbours, coworkers, and community at large ?? we are learning how critical it is to make sure that we all have a lifeline.
While our farm might seem like the perfect place to wait out the coronavirus, our families and our livelihoods still count on being connected every day. One of these critical lifelines is rural broadband ?? something that might be taken for granted when following google maps down city streets or working high up in office towers.
As we look at the impact that COVID-19 has had, we can see that it has changed lives in every corner of the world. Even here in our remote Western Canadian province, schools are closed, appointments are cancelled, and visits with neighbours and friends have been brought to a standstill.
As farmers, we operate in a global economy and we know more than most how connected we all are to each other. The food we grow on our farm travels highways and oceans ?? and relies solely on the demands of the market. If one watches a drone video of my farm, we may look isolated but that is just an illusion. Farmers travel, our livestock and grain crosses borders, and the goods and services we provide span the globe.
While we participate in a global economy, we do not experience all of the advantages of it. As business owners, our need for access to reliable phones and internet are just as profound as those in urban centres. As the social distancers and self-isolators place new pressures on our systems of communication, farmers are feeling the brunt of it.
In the best of times, our internet service or Netflix streaming has lapses, due to weather or inadequate capacity. This problem is now more acute, with more people working from home and school education moving online.
As I try to conduct farm business, hold video conferences and participate in board meetings, I have been faced with consistent delays and interrupted service. Compounding these concerns are recent moves by farm and machinery auction companies to host entirely online auction services. This might be a sign of the times but its also a further burden on an already underinvested infrastructure.
Will some remotely located farms even have access to those sales?
Or will that annoying buffer wheel just keep spinning?
Speaking of spinning wheels, did I mention our notoriously unreliable cell phone service? On our farm, my family and our employees keep in touch via WhatsApp. It allows us to make plans as we decide which fields require attention, when trucks are scheduled to arrive, and what equipment needs repair. However, we suffer from plenty of dead zones??places on our farm where we can?t get a signal at all. Our backup plan is to resort to the 20th-century technology of CB radio?? *Breaker Breaker one-nine*
A farming colleague described his connection problem: ?Tried to download software updates for John Deere receivers and monitors??took over six hours and completely made our internet non-existent for other purposes.?? He added that rural broadband is at the core of his farming business, ?and you don?t realize how much it is a part of your work until it?s not working.??
So, what can we do about this problem?
Recently, our Canadian rail system was held up by activists upset by the construction of oil pipelines. The nationwide blockades resulted in billions of lost dollars and reemphasized the importance of lifelines in rural communities to ensure we get our product to market.
While we hope to have a resolution to that connectivity problem, the issue of connection to the outside world is not completely solved. It may not be reflected in any economic studies or GDP growth charts, but this is a daily struggle and one that certainly hurts our farms bottom line.
I know these problems will not be fixed overnight. It will require action from our government, infrastructure investment from telecommunication companies, and the foresight to acknowledge the needs of the modern farm.
Rural broadband is vital to our business ?? and we cannot wait forever for it to be addressed.
So although it?s true that I don?t want to be anywhere other than on our farm right now, I?m looking forward to a future of better rural connectivity.