ReConnect R&D program: Supporting agricultural innovation by bridging the digital divide
Jul 29, 2021
Advances in technology, automation, and remote sensing constitute a cross-cutting science macro-movement impacting agriculture, outlined in the USDA Science Plan (PDF, 2.6MB). The Science Plan guides USDA’s science priorities for the next 5 years, building on past successes. Compared 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 aimed at advancing the automation and mechanization of specialty crops. A Case for Rural Broadband: Insights on Rural Broadband Infrastructure and Next Generation Precision Agriculture Technologies (PDF, 2.5 MB) highlights the ability of farmers and ranchers to implement digital technologies, automate processes, increase productivity and expand into the global market with reliable high-speed broadband access.
Often when we think of rural broadband we think of how Internet access has revolutionized the way Americans consume media, do business, learn, and receive medical care through telemedicine. Over the past two decades, USDA has made significant strides in connecting rural communities to the same telecommunications infrastructure enjoyed by their urban counterparts. However, the untapped potential of broadband also extends to new technologies that farmers and ranchers are using 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 farm management. Developments in precision farming technologies resulting from increased federal investments in rural electronic connectivity could translate into an estimated $ 47 billion to $ 65 billion per year for U.S. agricultural producers. Electronic connectivity allows producers to collect data on what, when and where to grow certain crops. They can also use real-time detection and automated on-site harvesting processes to improve yields and labor efficiency.
Digital technologies allow American farmers and ranchers to access a global market through online sales, multimedia advertising and the optimization of distribution networks. Remote working capabilities allow producers to transcend traditional geographic boundaries to attract the best and brightest minds to their operations. State-of-the-art decision support software, intelligent irrigation systems and automated harvesting equipment promote sustainable use of inputs and efficient management. These advances not only support US producers, but they also require a consistent and reliable broadband connection.
In the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2018, Congress provided $ 600 million for the Broadband Pilot Program, which we now call the ReConnect Program, which focuses on areas that are completely lacking or have insufficient broadband service. In fiscal 2019, an additional $ 550 million was added to the program by Congress. In fiscal 2020, Congress allocated an additional $ 555 million to the program.
The ReConnect program offers one-time federal funding and funding options in the form of loans, grants, and loan / grant combinations to facilitate the deployment of broadband in rural America that currently does not have sufficient access.
In May 2020, USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) completed the announcement of the first round of award winners as part of the FY2019 Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA). 82 awards were presented in 34 US states. The investment represents $ 744,303,168 in grants and loans for high-speed broadband infrastructure projects. These 82 essential investments will link approximately 13,000 farms, enabling them to improve and use precision farming technologies for the production of specialty crops.