Statistics can be a friend or foe when attempting to prove a point, and they certainly worked in Peter Sykanda’s favour at an education forum earlier this month in Georgina, Ont., organized by Canada’s Rural & Remote Broadband Community (CRRBC).
Sykanda, a farm policy analyst with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) whose focus areas include rural internet and telecom connectivity trends, said in a session on the connected farm, “we advocate on behalf of farmers, and we want to see them have the same access to internet services that our urban counterparts have.”
That is a critical point, for without adequate connectivity, smart farming, also known by the term precision agriculture, simply can not occur.
To that point, Sykanda delved into a survey conducted by the OFA in 2020 that asked farmers about the connectivity issues they face, which he added was a virtually a repeat of a similar survey carried out in 2015.
The bottom line was this: rural internet connectivity was not as much of an issue seven years ago, but since that time, he said, “a fire has been lit among our members,” when it comes to having adequate service.
A key finding in the most recent survey, added Sykanda, is that farmers indicated that increased business opportunities would arise when improved internet connections are in place.
Here, he said, is where the situation has become problematic. Compared to 2015, there was a substantial increase in the “number of farmers indicating that they need more than one internet connection to handle the amount of data being generated. This is likely reflecting the fact that they are adopting more digital technologies and/or the technologies themselves are generating a lot more data.”
The problem, said Sykanda, is that frequent internet outages are occurring: “These are real life implications for our members. Beyond general annoyances, we had farmers responding that they are simply unable to carry out regular business activities, have an inability to access market information that they need, and can’t participate in online learning opportunities. Some have indicated real productivity losses.”
Survey results revealed that upwards of 57 per cent of respondents indicated that they have either not invested in precision agriculture technologies as a result of a poor connection, or they are delaying any type of purchase of them until the connectivity woes are cured.
“When it comes to precision ag-tech, my approach to government has been say that reliable high-speed internet is the best thing you can do for climate change,” Sykanda said. “It will allow farmers to remain world leaders in terms of productivity, but also allow Canada to continue to be a leader in lowering greenhouse gas emission tied to agricultural production.”
The Ontario farming industry does have a key ally in helping to make that happen in an organization called the Regional and Rural Broadband Project or R2B2.
Shayla Spalding, a research assistant with the organization, founded in 2007 by Dr. Helen Hambly, a professor in the University of Guelph’s school of environmental design and rural development, described it during the panel as “Canada’s longest running research initiative on rural broadband.
“We have a special interest in the use and availability of high-speed internet on farms and across agri-food systems,” she said. “Our research looks at where basic services are available, and we map and assess the gaps in rural broadband.”
On its web site, the organization contends that “digital telecommunications infrastructure underlies most, if not all, dimensions of regional economies. Today, the internet is essential to the well-being of those who live and work in small towns and rural areas.
“Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food sector has a number of new digital tools and processes as a result of developments in various technological fields. R2B2 calls this ‘the connected farm’ involving integration across real and virtual landscapes. These include wireless optimization and agronomic decision-support tools.”
Spalding said the connected farm is precision agriculture, “but it’s more than just the use of precision sensors and pinpoint technologies in the field and with animals. It’s about a new digital ecosystem that farms are a part of.
“Farmers are increasingly aware of these market and technological innovations, and they are calling for a national agriculture broadband strategy in Canada. Farms in Ontario and across Canada need better broadband to innovate and move forward in this world of great changes and challenges.”
According to an article about R2B2 entitled Bridging the digital divide, posted earlier this year on the University of Guelph site, rural residents can pay up to three and a half times more to receive a slower download speed than urban residents – if internet is available at all.
David Worden, the project’s lead economist, states in it that the “issue of poor rural broadband is a multifaceted problem that is deserving of a multidisciplinary solution. One of the root causes of the problem is that the financial incentives for internet service providers just aren’t present.
“Here in Canada, there is very little research on micro-level effects, like the impact of introducing better broadband to a household.”