Tuesday, August 25, 2015
State House Panel Examines Agriculture Technology Advancements; Witnesses Call for Enhanced Internet Access
Agriculture groups and broadband advocates urged a House panel Monday to help improve Internet access in rural parts of the state, saying it would allow more farmers to utilize technology to enhance their operations.
The push for improved Internet access came as the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee examined new agriculture technology developments during a hearing at Ohio State University - the first of its five late summer road stops.
Derik Geitgey, of Mt. Vernon-based Ag Info Tech, LLC, briefed the committee on five technologies growers are using to become more efficient, profitable and environmentally responsible.
They include: auto steer, which utilizes GPS signals to guide tractors, sprayers or combines through a field; auto swath, which uses GPS to record where applications have been made; GIS-based "Smart Soil Sampling and Variable Rate Application," which allows field and soil samples to be taken as if there were several small fields; on-the-go crop health sensors, which measure crop health; and unmanned aerial vehicles, which would allow for a real-time geo referenced image of crop health if approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Many of these technologies rely heavily on the Internet, Mr. Geitgey said, adding that GPS corrections can be delivered via the Internet from the Department of Transportation. Images and flight plans for the UAV rely on 4G data availability - something that's not available in many rural areas, he said.
Lawmakers, the witness said, could help secure reliable 4G speed Internet for the entire state.
Connect Ohio Executive Director Lindsay Shanahan also called for enhanced Internet access, saying how her organization, a subsidiary of Connected Nation, has seen how it could benefit several sectors of Ohio's economy, like agriculture.
"Enhanced service coverage can reduce costs and increase farming yields," she told the committee. "Not only does broadband access allow Ohio farmers to sell to a larger market, but technology also enables more precise and targeted production methods."
Access, Ms. Shanahan said, represents a major challenge to broadband use in Ohio agriculture.
According to the witness, surveys Connect Ohio has conducted of local businesses found that those using broadband have 60% higher revenues than their counterparts. A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey released last week, she added, showed a broadband gap in Ohio's agricultural sector, with just under a third of farms not using the Internet.
"This issue is not unique to the Ohio agricultural sector - nationwide 30% of farms do not use the Internet," Ms. Shanahan said. "While the number of Ohio farms offline has decreased from 45% in 2009, this number is still too high. One in three Ohio farms are missing opportunities for higher sales and greater production that broadband technology offers."
Connect Ohio, she said, will work with Deere & Company later this year to map wireless broadband and cell coverage in rural Ohio counties.
Additionally, AT&T, Cincinnati Bell, CenturyLink, FairPoint Communications, Frontier Communications and Windstream have been offered nearly $59 million per year in subsidies through the Federal Communications Commission's Connect America Fund to support broadband networks in Ohio, Ms. Shanahan said. Frontier, Windstream and FairPoint Communications have accepted funding and the remaining companies have until this week to do so.
Chairman Rep. Brian Hill (R-Zanesville) said connecting more Ohioans and farmers with adequate Internet remains a priority for his panel.
"The rural development side of the committee is trying to look at where we can help with that, especially when you get to southeast Ohio and the hills involved it's more of a challenge," he said in an interview. "(There are) not as many users, so it's hard to make the economic case. We're trying to find ways we can enhance and give those people the same opportunities the rest of Ohio has."
The most recent biennial budget (HB 64*), the chairman said, set the groundwork for these issues, by allowing companies to use new technologies to provide services in rural areas.
Other Testimony: Aaron Arnett, a member of the board of directors for the Ohio Cattlemen's Association, told the panel that while cattlemen's adoption of reproductive technology is largely slow and underutilized, new technologies could enhance herd reproductive efficiency and overall profitability.
Briefing members on artificial insemination, estrus synchronization, sexed semen, early pregnancy detection, cloning and embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization, he acknowledged that some of technologies face public perception issues among consumers.
Despite this challenge, Mr. Arnett said development and application of advanced reproductive technologies have increased the rate of genetic progress and increased beef industry production efficiency.
He told Rep. Burkley that it's important as the population grows that the industry embrace technology and not push back against it.
Matt Whitehead, who spoke on behalf of Green Climber NA Owner Marty Halm, meanwhile, promoted remote controlled slope mowers, saying the new technology allows operators to stand up to 1,000 feet away and safely maintain steep hillsides, embankments and slopes.
Investment in these mowers, he told the panel, would save the state in terms of possible injuries and result in improved work efficiency, adding that they have been demonstrated to the Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Turnpike & Infrastructure Commission.
Mr. Whitehead added that the company is seeking clarification from the Bureau of Workers' Compensation on whether state and local governments can use funds from the Safety Intervention Grant Program to purchase these units.