That’s according to the NFU’s latest [Feb 2020] annual survey of members, which showed that 93% of farmers believe broadband is essential for their business, and yet only a fifth of them can access superfast speeds, defined as 24Mbps (megabits per second) and above.
More shocking is that a third of them are still bumping along at 2Mbps or less (which the NFU says is actually worse than the year before), and that 27% believe poor broadband is a barrier to further use of digital technology.
That’s a real worry because the farming industry is the bedrock upon which rural communities have been built for generations, and technology is vitally important to meeting current and future challenges. Without profitable farms we start to lose the glue that holds those communities together, not to mention the ability to produce our own food and the very custodians of so much of our countryside. In Cornwall, where we are based, 80% of land is farmed.
Broadband is essential for a modern farm business
The NFU says broadband is essential for running a modern, efficient, profitable and safe farm business. And they’re right. As technology continues to get smarter, the precision agricultural tools and machinery that farmers use day-to-day require the internet and a lot of data transfer capability.
Tools like yield mapping, guidance systems and remote sensors that can tell farmers how much water or fertiliser they need for their crops, all need superfast broadband connectivity to work most effectively.
And this will become increasingly important as EU subsidies are totally phased out in coming years and replaced with the Environmental Land Management System. This will reward farmers who improve the environment and farm more sustainably in the move to a low carbon economy.
Technology is driving change
This in turn will drive further adoption of agricultural technology, particularly around automation, monitoring, precision farming and renewable energy, all of which need high speed internet to function. By digitally enabling agricultural businesses to be more productive and sustainable in the face of these huge changes, the sector can deliver the environmental benefits that the Government is seeking.
Sustainable agriculture is good news for consumers too. If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we don’t want things to go back to exactly how they were before. Market research into post-pandemic trends has shown a rise in the sense of community and a desire to re-evaluate where we spend our money and the wider impact of those decisions.
That’s why farm retailers saw a 92% increase in sales during the first lockdown as consumers sought out produce closer to home, and it’s why four out of five introduced a click-and-collect service for their customers* You can’t do that without the internet.
There has possibly never been a more opportune moment for farmers to sell their produce direct. Coronavirus has without doubt strengthened communities the length and breadth of Britain and laid bare the vulnerabilities of global supply chains.
Direct to consumer sales
We have seen instead a renewed sense of localism and an opportunity to create a broader and more stable marketplace that reduces food miles and packaging and focuses on freshness and quality, bringing producers and consumers and communities together. What an opportunity.
For farmers and rural communities to realise that opportunity they need to be able to harness the power of the internet. Whether it’s a Facebook page to advertise your eggs locally, or a full-scale online farm shop, high speed digital connectivity is vital for communities to come together.
It’s a theme picked up by the South West Rural Productivity Commission, which highlighted how the roll-out of superfast broadband in urban areas has created a digital divide, with rural communities and businesses at a disadvantage as their areas get left behind.
The Commission highlights tourism and agriculture businesses, including farm cottages and other diversified on-farm accommodation, losing out on bookings because their Wi-Fi signal isn’t good enough for increasingly digital-savvy customers. Or farm businesses that have converted buildings into offices to let but have no tenants because the broadband is poor.
Bridging the digital divide
But why has this happened? The simple answer is economics. It’s easier for providers to build networks in more populated areas where more people will use them, than spend up to £100,000 per mile of fibre cable in sparsely populated rural areas.
That’s created a 20-year legacy of under-investment, with countless communities left out on a digital limb.
But it’s a legacy that Wildanet is tackling. We are a private company spending £85 million over the next 28 months to build a new high speed fibre network that can reach digitally neglected areas across Cornwall, creating around 100 new jobs in the process.
We’re offering guaranteed speeds (not ‘up to’ estimates), with our fibre connection delivering up to one gigabit (1,000 megabits) per second, depending on customer requirements. That’s around 40 times faster than the average connection in Cornwall, enough to download an entire high definition feature film in about 30 seconds.
Working with farmers and landowners
We can’t do this alone however, and will be working with farmers and other landowners on wayleave agreements to allow fibre cable across their land where we can’t use public footpaths, verges and roads. We bury the fibre around half a metre deep, using mole ploughs at a rate of up to 1,000 metres a day, close to the boundaries of fields, generally in the Countryside Stewardship Margin. So it’s a pretty quick process, with minimum disruption. Watch a video of this in action below.
Our roll-out timetable is ambitious so if you hear from one of our wayleave officers that we’re coming your way we’ll work with you to make the process as quick and simple as possible, and of course there is a return for you.
At Wildanet we’re committed to helping rural communities across Cornwall bridge the digital divide, and we know that rural broadband is essential to modern agriculture. By enabling technological innovations we can help Cornish farms become more efficient, increase environmental sustainability and meet the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead.