The Invisible Advantage

Broadband powers farming.

John Deere advocates for rural broadband and 5G because rural connectivity is important and essential for our customers to capitalize on the technological advancements that modern farm equipment offers.

On the farm, our customers are running businesses in rural areas. Communication of information –people-to-machine, machine-to-people, and machine-to-machine – is critical to those rural businesses.

All communities, not just urban, should be able to reap the benefits of this technology – more democratic access to connectivity only strengthens economic vitality and social benefits to us all, no matter where we live.

Arkansas farmer Dennis Haigwood ends his day where it often starts -- behind the wheel of his John Deere tractor.

Silicon Valley, the world’s tech hub, is in the southern San Francisco Bay Area. The confluence of the Black and White Rivers, fertile flatlands, is in northeast Arkansas. The two places are worlds apart?— geographically, demographically, economically?— but in one respect, they’re very close neighbors: neither can be at its best without high-speed Internet service.

For modern agriculture, rural broadband is nearly as indispensable as water and sunshine. Farmers use it not just to maximize the efficiency of their equipment, but also to keep an eye on global commodity markets, stay in touch with customers, and search for new markets around the globe.

Arkansas farmers Dennis Haigwood and Travis Senter grow food needed to feed the world’s growing population and they rely on broadband to maximize their production and efficiency and help them compete in a tough global market.

Making do is what farmers do

Haigwood farms near Newport, Arkansas, a small town downstream from the Ozarks and about 90 miles northeast of Little Rock.

He and his brothers farm about 9,000 acres, and his sons and nephew farm about 3,000 acres nearby. Rice, corn, and soybeans account for “a huge majority” of their crops, Haigwood, said, but they also grow some cotton and, from time to time, peas.

Haigwood started driving tractors when he was nine or 10 years old and began farming full-time right out of college. “I never have done anything else,” said Haigwood, who is 64. “It’s all I ever really wanted to do.”

Although his desire hasn’t changed over the decades, the way he pursues farming has.

For example, in the years leading up to the early 1990s, he approached farming the “traditional” way — taking big rigs into the field — but realized he couldn’t find enough workers or equipment to cover 12,000 acres. So, at his younger brother’s urging, he switched to no-till and realized they could double their operation “overnight” with almost no additional expense. The switch changed their emphasis from “having a whole lot of equipment out there plowing stuff to actually purchasing equipment that would allow us to be hugely more efficient than we were,” he recalled.

“If you’re in the right place, you know you can get decent upload and download times and a decent cell signal, but you can have great service on one side of the farm and then go to the other side and not even be able to get a cell signal. That’s really difficult.” —Dennis Haigwood

But the biggest challenge he’s facing now is technical. He relies on data to make his operation more efficient, but his use of data is hampered by the spottiness of broadband service.

“If you’re in the right place, you know you can get decent upload and download times and a decent cell signal,” Haigwood said, “but you can have great service on one side of the farm and then go to the other side and not even be able to get a cell signal. That’s really difficult.”

Haigwood’s a farmer, though, and farmers make do. It sounds like something Rube Goldberg would dream up, but Haigwood’s maintenance shop can get a signal from an antenna on a neighbor’s grain bin and bounce that signal to his brother’s shop and other parts of the operation. Or he may wait until he gets home to use the wi-fi service to transfer data. Or he may even resort to transferring data on a flash drive.

“Everybody’s grasping just to get better service,” he said. “You just don’t want to depend on it too heavily because you’ll get in an area where it doesn’t work at all, and it’ll drive you crazy.”

Travis Senter, who farms 12,000 acres in northeast Arkansas, is pictured next to one of his approximately two dozen John Deere tractors.

Going back to the “old way” — hand signals and radios — isn’t an option. “I can’t imagine,” Haigwood said. “We already have a couple of generations who do not know how to function without a cell phone.”

To stay competitive, the only viable option is to get improved broadband service. Without it, even simple things aren’t so simple. Like shopping for parts for his equipment online. Or comparing seed planting dates. “A better connection just lets you multitask really well and it can make you look smarter than you really are,” Haigwood laughed. “Even if you don’t know the answer to a question, you can look it up and get it instantly.”

On a serious note, Haigwood said, “If we could get more reliable and faster download speeds, it would allow us to do things a lot more efficiently, and we’d have more confidence in what we’re doing.”

Not many miles away, another Arkansas farmer had to assemble his own infrastructure?— at his own expense — to ensure his operations have reliable access to broadband.

Building a tower

Travis Senter farms cotton, rice, soy beans, and a little corn on about 8,000 acres in a delta region along the Mississippi River in northeast Arkansas. He also helps a neighbor who farms 12,000 acres.

Senter uses John Deere Operations Center? to keep track of his operation. The Operations Center helps collect and analyze machine and agronomic information. Senter is very comfortable with data and modern data-management tools. He has to be. Along with the combined 20,000 acres, he keeps tabs on the machinery, which includes two dozen tractors, three combines, three cotton pickers, four sprayers, and a lot of the “little” tractors, which is how Senter refers to his 6140s. And there’s the grain hauling, about 1,000,000 bushels of grain bin storage, and a cotton gin.

Travis Senter's 80-foot cell tower dwarfs his nearby buildings.

Senter said he tries to document “as many processes as we can. So everything’s got JDLink?.” JDLink is a telematics system designed to remotely connect owners and managers to their equipment, providing alerts and machine information. “Everything has a Gen 4 4600 command center processor and display with the premium activation for documentation. A year or two ago, I decided ‘let’s just put the technology in everything,’ and then that way we don’t have to worry about it,” Senter said.

The “worry” was having to rely on transferring data with flash drives or whatever else he could get to work in the absence of a reliable broadband connection.

“John Deere has saved a lot of work for me, especially with JDLink,” Senter said. “Now, all the data just comes through. That has been a godsend for me.”

At first, though, the big investment?— several thousand dollars for each of the 24 tractors?— wasn’t an easy sell. “You know, you didn’t have to have auto-steer, but now everybody has to have it,” Senter said. “If you took away someone’s auto steer, you might as well take away his air conditioning.”

The point is that once the benefit becomes obvious, the investment becomes easier to justify.

With data, the benefit may not be as immediately obvious as it was with auto-steer.

“But when they need information, they just call me or text me, and I can give them an answer very quickly and efficiently,” Senter said. “If one part of a field is doing worse than another, we know that. And we address these things and fix them fast. Being able to quickly identify problems — that’s worth its weight in gold. So when I said, ‘Hey, it may cost us $70,000 to do this,’ they know we’re going to make good use of it, so there’s no reason not to do it.”

The benefits include yield information. “Stuff like that we can instantly look at,” Senter said. “Four or five agronomists are linked into our yields, and they’ll see things and call and ask me ‘What’s up with that field?’”

"Being able to quickly identify problems — that’s worth its weight in gold. So when I said, 'Hey, it may cost us $70,000 to do this,' they know we’re going to make good use of it, so there’s no reason not to do it." —Travis Senter

Senter also uses data to help move equipment. “We are somewhat like a factory when we’re harvesting,” he said. “My John Deere (Operations Center) app tells me how many combines we have on a field, how many acres we’ve cut, how many acres are left to be cut, what’s our yield, how many trucks I need to send to this field, how many I can release to the next field. We have 18 people we need to make sure are being efficient. The data helps us solve tons of these logistics problems.”

The benefits can even come in unexpected ways. Senter recalled a driver who was using his phone to communicate with the other employees, but couldn’t drive and use the phone at the same time, so he was spending up to 15 hours a week idling. Senter bought the driver a Bluetooth headset. “You instantly you go from losing all those hours to gaining them back, and that’s just the smallest stuff,” Senter said.

The difference data makes may be most starkly drawn by a childhood memory. Senter, who is just 41, recalled that when he was “a kid, there were houses everywhere — 10 times the number of houses out there now, and those were all for labor. Today, we’re doing all this work, all these acres, with significantly fewer people. If we didn’t have the data and technology, we couldn’t even find enough people who could do the work.”

Senter said his broadband service is “pretty good, but not as good as it should be. You know, you get extremely spoiled when you have good high-speed Internet.”

To ensure he has good high-speed signal coverage for his operations, he worked with a local contractor who has a good fiber optic connection to build an 80-foot-tall antenna. Senter bounces wireless long-range high-speed DSL signals from the antenna, giving him the broadband necessary to operate as efficiently as he can.

“So we’ve got Ubiquiti wireless, long-range Internet,” Senter said. “I’ve got 30 cameras in various places, dishes everywhere. I think there are about 57 devices of ubiquity on my system, so we have to kind of do our own thing. While I wish we had access to great fiber Internet in one of our spots, we just have to make it work on our own.”

Travis Senter plots out the day's work on a large interactive screen.

Senter sees great potential for technology, but understands the importance of being able to move data at high speeds — higher than speeds available to him today.

“A data cap situation is a problem, and it’s a problem with our entire ecosystem,” he said. “When you have data, you think differently and you do things differently. If we can somehow fix our broadband system to where we wouldn’t have to deal with a data cap, we’d only be more efficient.”

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The Invisible Advantage

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