Melody the cow has a more detailed online profile than you do.
Farmer Andrew Campbell has stats on every part of Melody’s decade-long life, from birth to vaccinations to the fat content of the milk she produced in September 2013. It’s all logged in his herd management software – a hallmark of a modern farming operation.
But when it comes time to update the data by communicating with remote servers, Campbell has to struggle with a spotty connection, like the majority of Ontario farmers. He waits until the weather is just right, clicks update and crosses his fingers that the slow connection holds out until the transfer is complete.
“If it rains too hard, then we're out. If it gets too windy then the thing must move too much, vibrate too much and kicks off the connection,” Campbell tells TVO.org. “Then there’s the speed - if all the kids are on it when they get home from school, then it slows down once the buses drop kids off.”
Farms have embraced big data in everything from combine harvesters to milking machines, but Internet connectivity hasn’t kept pace with innovation. Rural areas have spotty coverage, meaning large files – such as medical and milking records of a large cattle herd – can be difficult or impossible to transfer. In many cases, including Campbell’s, farmers use a long-range fixed wireless connection, which is victim to changing weather conditions.
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“The more we use the Internet, the more we find ourselves saying why do we have to always be behind everybody else?” says Campbell.
Two-thirds of Ontario farmers don’t have reliable Internet access, according to a survey done by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) this year. The survey of 1,000 farmers found that 94 per cent believe Internet access is important to their farm operations and 50 per cent believe that improved access would boost their bottom line. Brent Royce, board member with the OFA, says Internet access should be considered alongside transportation infrastructure.
“Roads and bridges are important to rural Ontario, but so is good Internet. The premier wants agriculture and agri-food to increase by 120,000 jobs by the year 2020, but the whole agribusiness sector will not thrive in rural Ontario if they don't have good telecommunications,” he says.
The OFA survey will be used in the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s submission to the CRTC as part of its ongoing review of basic telecommunications services.
Better connectivity could lead to increased efficacy for the food system as a whole. The Internet allows farmers to get up-to-date pricing information, share technical directions like equipment repair and keep abreast of the industry trends.
“The more farmers will be connected, the more likely they'll be informed and they'll make the right decisions,” says Sylvain Charlebois, professor at the University of Guelph’s Food Institute. “Let's say for example you need to repurpose your farm – you’re just looking at something different to grow than cash crops – well, you need information.”
It’s also helped collapse barriers between the urban population and those who produce the food they eat. Twitter is a fertile forum for farmers where they can discuss everything from the weather of the day to the viability of Alpaca farming.
“Farming is a lonely place. You're always out there in the middle of nowhere and the Internet allows you to connect very quickly, very rapidly with folks outside of the community,” says Charlebois.
Campbell shares updates daily with nearly 17,000 followers on Twitter where he posts pictures and updates as @FreshAirFarmer.
The question is whether farmers can get the quality of Internet access needed to maintain those business and social relationships, as well as handle large volumes of data produced by advanced equipment.
“We're running businesses and a lot of businesses are using data more and more,” says Campbell. “On the farm it's turning out to be the exact same thing, we just don't have the same level of access.”
Image credit: Andrew Campbell