Episode 7

Texting Cows and Agribots: How Broadband Is Reshaping America’s Farms

August 17, 2020

Episode Summary

Candes Spencer, Southeast Regional Sales Manager for Comstar Supply, joins the show to discuss five key technologies — all powered by broadband — that are impacting the future of farming in rural America.

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

 

Stephen Smith: And thanks for tuning in today to another episode of Rural Broadband Today. I’m your host, Stephen Smith. And what a treat it is for me today to visit with Candes Spencer. Candes is a long time friend to the rural broadband industry. She’s a Southeast regional sales manager for Comstar Supply. And Candes, it’s great to have you on the show today.

Candes Spencer: Thank you. Thank you for letting me be here.

Stephen Smith: Well, Candes, we touched base recently, and you were telling me about an interesting presentation that you had the opportunity to do earlier this year to some young farmers in Tennessee. Your service area covers several states in the southeast and Tennessee being one of those. And we’ve got a lot of friends and listeners in Tennessee. You were talking to some young farmers there about broadband and how that impacts agriculture. Well, certainly during this time, with the health care crisis that our country is dealing with, we see just how important broadband is to those who are working from home, those who are trying to learn from home, going to school online, and certainly healthcare and telehealth and remote.

Stephen Smith: Something we don’t always think about is how broadband is impacting the food that ends up on our table. And Candes, we’re going to talk a little bit about that presentation that you did. And basically, when you’re talking about the role of fiber optics and broadband in rural America, that’s something that while we don’t think about it, it has a tremendous impact on what we end up eating in our food supply, doesn’t it?

Candes Spencer: Yes, it totally does. It affects our everyday life. Broadband certainly affects every area of our lives, as far as the libraries for the school, if there are not enough libraries, exactly as you said — but for farming, it does even more than that. Our food supply is dwindling by the days, and the amount of people that are hungry in the world population is very vast. With that presentation that you’re discussing, it kind of shows exactly what those numbers are and how it’s dwindling. The population is growing and the amount of farmers and the amount of food supply is deplenishing.

Stephen Smith: Well, I’ve heard before that never in history have so few people been called on to feed so many, and I think that as those trends that you talk about continue with population growth and fewer and fewer people actually doing the farming work, we’re going to continue to see that issue really expand. And fiber optics and broadband, over fiber networks, I think is going to play a big role in that, helping farms become more efficient. In that presentation, you really dove into some specifics about how broadband is helping, so let’s dive into that. Planting, watering, crop health, and those kinds of things, there was a very interesting chart — which we will try to share in the show notes — that takes a look at a farm that’s using smart technology. And so talk to us a little bit about some of those items that are on that chart, starting with the survey drones. I found that particularly fascinating.

Candes Spencer: So, yes, on that slide that you’re discussing, there are five key things that we think of why to have a smart farm — why broadband is so important to the farming industry. So the survey drones. When you think of that, you’re going to be able to take those drones and do some aerial surveys of the fields. You’ll be able to do some mapping of your weeds, your yields, and soil variations. That will all help you to give more precise applications and inputs in your mapping, which will help decrease the spread of the pernicious weeds and the black grass. All of that can help your yields increase tremendously. Plus, the drones will be able to give you in real-time exactly what is going on throughout your whole field and on your farm, whether it be with your livestock, whether it be with your vegetables, all of those things.

Candes Spencer: And then, the next key thing that we said would be the agribots.

Stephen Smith: So we’re talking about transformers out there in the field. Tell us a little bit about what the role of those robots are out in the field.

Candes Spencer: So a lot of times people hear an agribot, and that is a very scary thing to them in their farm. But without these things here recently with COVID, we’ve had a lot of farms who have really been struggling because they bring in migrants from other countries, and they fly them in to pick their farms and to handle their crops. And recently, they have not been able to do that. Because of COVID, they haven’t been able to fly into the United States or to where they need to go to be able to fix the fields and properly pick those fields. And so with a fleet of agribots, you’re going to be able to send out your herd of agribots to tend the crops, to do the weeding, the fertilizing, and the harvesting. And the robots will all capable of doing this sort of application. They can do fertilizer and which will help even reduce your fertilizer cost by nearly 99 percent. When you think about that, that’s a lot of cost that you’re going to be able to take out of your farm cost [inaudible] fertilizers.

Candes Spencer: Then the third key thing of the smart farm we said was farming data. Farming data actually generates a ton of information, and it will all go right back to your cloud. The data can be used in things such as your greenhouse. It’s basically a real-time, digital evidence of what’s going on all the way out on your farm. And with that information, you’re going to be able to get inspections. You’re going to be able to get your grant work done with all the data information you have without having to fill out tons of forms. You’re going to be able to have all that information wrapped and sitting in your cloud that you can just upload straight over to those grant applications and those inspections. And so you won’t have as many inspectors coming out to your property having to do that.

Stephen Smith: Well, I think those who do not spend any time on a modern farm may have a vision in their mind of what farming looked like generations ago. Or maybe their grandparents had a farm that they visited. But the modern-day farm is an expansive operation, and it’s become quite a technical operation. And when you talk about that data moving into the cloud and being able to collect that and then put that data to work, there’s a tremendous amount of data being generated now and a lot of things to keep up with on a farm. And there’s one thing in particular that I wanted you to dive into. We hear a lot about the Internet of Things, and we think about our smart home, a security system, a camera, and you can turn the lights on and off, and those kinds of things. Those kinds of things are really managed by sensors that you might have in the home. But when you take that kind of concept and technology and put it across a farming operation, you have quite interesting things that monitor supply, of course, and monitor the chemicals that are being used, the fertilizer, and those kinds of things. But you also have things like animal health. And I love in your chart here where we’re talking about texting cows. So tell us a little bit about the sensors and the Internet of Things on the farm.

Candes Spencer: So when I first saw texting cows, I was like, I have no idea what that means, but that’s pretty interesting to even hear that term. So sensors will actually be attached to your livestock, which will allow monitoring of your animals’ health and wellbeing on a daily basis that could actually send text alerts to both the farmer and the vet, like if a cow goes into labor or if a cow develops an infection. Whatever your herd is, it helps their survival rate, and it helps their yields tremendously. [You’d] be able to keep from spreading infections throughout the whole herd of your livestock. So it would certainly make for a huge difference by having those real-time sensors and that real-time information. So sensors are for the Internet of things, when you speak about it, they actually can do many, many things for many different segments, whether it be farms or libraries or whatever it is. The sensors are going to be able to give a lot of real information out in that cloud to a lot of different segments.

Stephen Smith: When we talk about agribots and texting cows, that might sound real futuristic, but those who are listening in rural areas, chances are there’s a farm in your community that’s using some of this technology now and particularly the smart tractors that have the GPS control. We’re seeing more and more of that; it’s become a fairly common occurrence. And that’s one of the things that’s on the chart in your presentation. To talk to us a little bit about the smart tractors.

Candes Spencer: Yeah, that’s the number five key thing of what we think you’re going to need for your smart farm. So that smart tractors have GPS controlled steering, and it has optimized route planning. And it will help reduce your soil erosion, saving your fuel costs by nearly 10%. But the big thing about smart tractors is, it does sound very futuristic, along with the texting cows and the farming data and the agribots. But all of those things, if you’re using them on your farm, it’s going to put you to be able to yield so much more than your neighboring farmers who are not using broadband for their farm. And, yes, it does sound very futuristic, but it’s going that way. And in order to keep up with the demands, we’re going to have to be able to use many different skill sets on our farms to be able to keep up with the amount of demand for the food supply.

Stephen Smith: Absolutely. And in your presentation, you have a statistic here that’s pretty striking. It says that 39% of rural Americans, which is about 23 million people, lack access to what the FCC defines as true broadband service: 25 megabits up and 3 megabits down per second. You think about how efficient a farm can be and how they can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less. One thing a farm can not do without is land. You have to have land to operate. You have to have land to grow the crop. You have to have land to grow the livestock. And where do you find those large swaths of land as farms get larger and larger? That’s going to be rural America. And we’re looking at, as the stat here says, 39% of these areas do not have adequate broadband.

Stephen Smith: Now, our company, WordSouth, works with a lot of rural broadband providers who are doing an amazing job of building fiber networks out into their communities and making sure that the people they serve have excellent service, better than you’ll find in the big cities, oftentimes gigabit networks. But we still have a large portion of our country that does not have adequate broadband service. What are you seeing out there and are you encouraged by all the activity that you may be seeing from the federal and the state levels to try to solve this rural broadband challenge?

Candes Spencer: Sure. So for me personally, I am very passionate about getting it to the rural areas because I grew up in the small town of Hickory, North Carolina, which is a very rural town between Charlotte and Asheville in North Carolina. Farms and land are key. You have to have that for the economy and the world to keep growing with the food supply. Many of our rural broadband providers are farmers as well on the co-op side. So they do both, and they are pushing very hard right now to get the laws changed. And they are pushing the government, and the government is starting to kind of listen with the FCC changes with the RDOF funds and things. And hopefully, it’s going to happen, but it needs to happen quicker. I believe it does need to happen quicker. That you’ve got to have broadband for the world to be able to keep going forward to meet the needs and the demands that we’re having in today’s food supplies.

Stephen Smith: Absolutely. If you would, tell us just a little bit about Comstar’s role in that. I know that Comstar is a supply company, and there’s a lot of different types of equipment and materials that are needed to make a broadband network. Tell us a little bit about Comstar. 

Candes Spencer: Comstar Supply is a company based in the northeast out of Philadelphia, but we have warehouses in the southeast and across the United States as well. And we are a supply house that does many different things. So we house the fiber optic cable. We house the hardware that goes on the poles, the vault. All the different things that a contractor would need to be able to get Internet and broadband to your house, whether it be for a big customer or a small customer. We are delivering many different kinds of fiber and cable to all the different providers, and we want to continue to do that. We keep a lot on our shelves so these contractors can keep working. Because with the government’s RDOF money coming at one time — if it does get approved, which it seems like it’s going to — the manufacturing plants, are working as hard as they can. And in many cases, they have smart manufacturing now. They’re starting to kind of get more of the 5G smart manufacturing to have some robots and things of that nature to help them with their demand increases. But with those demand increases, the supply houses have to have it sitting on their shelf to be able to have it readily available for those contractors when they need it. Or there are delays in the contract. So it’s very important that you have a good distribution partner that way they can have all the things that the contractor needs to have in stock, that they have it sitting on their shelf. And that is what Comstar Supply does. We have it readily available for the needs of the customers.

Stephen Smith: I think you touched on a good point that has been brought up before in other episodes of this podcast, that we’re coming up on an age where there’s going to be possibly more money available to build broadband networks than the supply can keep up with. That the manpower can keep up with, engineering, operations, and construction. There’s going to be plenty of work to do for everyone for the next few years. I think that’s for sure.

Candes Spencer: That is correct.

Stephen Smith: Well, Candes, this has been a very interesting conversation as it pertains to agriculture and our food supply. And, you know, if you think, “well, rural America, lack of broadband, and 30-something percent of rural America is not a problem that affects me,” you need to think about that the next time you sit down to dinner and realize that everything you’re consuming came from somewhere. And that came from those who are replenishing our food supply on a daily basis out there. And always our hats off to, a lot of respect for those in the farming industry, that’s for sure.

Stephen Smith: Candes, did we miss anything in your presentation that you would like to bring some attention to before we close? 

Candes Spencer: On your farm with increased business efficiency and quality, all that will result in increased revenue. So if you have a smart farm, all of those things — the quality, the efficiency, and the revenue — will increase as opposed to doing farming just the old-fashioned way, even though we all love that way as well. You’re just going to have to keep moving to the future.

Stephen Smith: That’s right. And when a business, be it a small mom-and-pop downtown, an industry, a manufacturing plant in the city or agribusiness, when those businesses flourish, it ripples out into the community and has a positive economic impact on all of us. So that’s a very good point.

Stephen Smith: Well, my guest today has been Candes Spencer, she is a Southeast regional sales manager for Comstar Supply. And it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today, Candes. Thanks for joining us.

Candes Spencer: Thank you so much.

Stephen Smith: And thank you for listening to Rural Broadband Today, where we take a look at the people and the issues shaping the rural broadband story across America. I’m your host, Stephen Smith, and this program is produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. Please share this episode with your network and help us tell the rural broadband story. Thanks for listening.

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