To others in Wisconsin, Northwestern Wisconsin may seem like it’s home to a scattering of rural communities in farm country. But, for St. Croix County, were we live, that could be farther from the truth. Neighboring the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro, St. Croix County’s population is one of the fastest growing counties in the state. According to the Department of Administration, the county is protected to grow 41 percent to 119,010 by 2040, making it fourth to first place Dane, followed by Brown and Kenosha Counties, which are home to the Madison, Green Bay and Milwaukee metro areas, respectively (New Richmond News, 2014).
Increase in population in our area translates to sprawling communities of Hudson, New Richmond and River Falls, as well as increase in the number of people moving to the country on their own little piece of acreage. While this growth is good for the local economy, it also contributes to fewer of our residents having connections or understanding of agriculture and rural life. This divide presents both opportunities and challenges when it comes to working with our local decision makers, neighbors and fellow community members who live in our county’s larger communities.
This trend is part of the reason I attended the Wisconsin Farm Bureau IGNITE Conference, which focused on Policy, Issues, Advocacy, Governance and Organization, Building Farm Bureau and Communicating for Agriculture and Farm Bureau. This conference offered an opportunity to draw on resources and information, so I can continue to advocate for agriculture as a farmer, community leader and through Farm Bureau in my county. It's up to us in agriculture and rural communities to have conversations, do outreach efforts and tell our own farming story right in our own community.
In addition to hearing from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Sheila Hardsorf, I also attended sessions on agricultural education and outreach programs, political trends impacting the fall state and national elections, tips for working with local media and strategies to work with local issues in our communities.
Here’s an article from The Country Today, which highlights the conference, including a few of my own comments: Read the article here.
This column was recently featured in the October/November Rural Route magazine from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.
Since the beginning of time, farmers have been innovators, meaning technology and farming have always gone hand in hand.
High-speed internet, or broadband, has become a vital utility in our lives. One that could arguably be grouped with electricity, water and sewer; however, if you live in a rural area, this near necessity isn’t available.
Broadband is a topic I am very passionate about. I raise goats for meat for cultural and local foods markets. Most of my sales, direct and wholesale, are made through the internet. In today’s world, almost all products and software are internet-based. Poor internet makes it hard to do business even at a basic level.
It’s a challenge to send emails, use my accounting program or manage my farm website. It takes an excessive amount of time and sometimes doesn’t happen due to service issues. My husband, who works from home, can’t always access his company server or use web conference calling because of low speed and inconsistent internet.
We are rural, but nothing extreme. We are 13 miles from the closest town and an hour from a major metro area. We’ve tried different options for providers, even multiple services at one time, including satellite internet and cell phones. Nothing worked well. Now, we use DSL through our telephone provider, because I refuse to pay for services that don’t work. Others who don’t live far from us pay half the price for speeds that are at least 50 times the speed of what we use, which is 2 megabytes of bits per second, but only after pleading that 1 mbps wasn’t sufficient.
In August, I discussed rural broadband challenges with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue while he was in Wisconsin. I explained our situation in western Wisconsin but also shared other frustrations that I’ve heard of such as paying a $100-plus a month and speeds of 0.2 mbps.
For example, a friend who has a robotic milk system can’t update her software. The system service tech downloads the update at his shop and creates the updates via hard drive on the farm. Pretty impressive technology, right? Talk about a disadvantage.
A fellow Farm Bureau member discussed another point during a round table with Secretary Perdue. Some school districts provide students with iPads so they can do homework, but some rural students can’t use them at home because of broadband availability.
In the 2017-19 state budget, $9,187,500 was allocated for schools to apply for specifically designated broadband for personal electronic computing devices. This will be useless without adequate broadband.
Rural areas are suffering to keep up. We’re talking about basic access to useable internet for our businesses and students to learn, not for entertainment.
The keyword in that last sentence was ’useable.’ Simply having internet doesn’t cut it. It’s about having access to useable, reliable service at a reasonable price.
Have you tested your internet speed? Use these steps:
For reference the Federal Communications Commission calls 10 mbps basic speed, but has set 25 mbps as its benchmark. I highly recommend you test what your internet speed.
While there’s still a long way to go, broadband expansion is at least growing. The Broadband Expansion Grant Program provides funds for equipment and construction expenses to expand or improve broadband service in underserved areas of Wisconsin.
Created by Governor Scott Walker in the 2013-15 budget, the Legislature initially invested $500,000 per year for the program, but it was increased to $1.5 million annually in the next budget.
Understanding the critical and timely need for a broadband infrastructure investment in the 2017-19 budget, Governor Walker proposed a significant expansion of the program: approximately $14 million. At the same time, the Legislature approved bills to dramatically increase funding, in response to the recommendations that came in 2016 from the Joint Legislative Council’s Study Committee on Rural Broadband.
Wisconsin will see $570 million invested in broadband infrastructure through 2020 via the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect American Fund Phase II project. Three major telecommunications providers in the state are participating in this program with many projects under construction.
This may seem like a significant amount of money to invest in a broadband infrastructure, and don’t get me wrong, it is, but the need in rural Wisconsin for faster and more reliable useable service so farmers, and students, can do what they need to do is significant.
It’s a wise investment in the people and businesses in rural Wisconsin and one that I believe is long overdue.
Writer’s note: As a finalist in the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Excellence in Agriculture competition, I had the opportunity to share my background and contributions to agriculture, but also pressing issues I see impacting agriculture today. I’ll be covering these issues in my blog.
I’m going to be honest. This is an issue that bothers me to the core, yet is often is the hardest for me to talk about. I love agriculture. It’s intertwined into my life through my work, family, friends and community. This issue tears me apart inside. I recognize it’s easy to push it aside and put up barriers. But, it can’t be ignored anymore.
You may know what I’m talking about. There’s a major divide within agriculture, whether it’s large vs. small, organic vs. traditional, grass-fed vs. grain fed, and so on. I admit there are a lot of layers to this issue. Some of it has been fueled by food marketing and by consumers who want to know how their food is produced. And, I think the later fact is a good thing. That’s what we’ve been working to accomplish with programs like Ag in the Classroom and outreach through local FFA chapters. But, we need to do more to come together in agriculture.
So, what can be done to unite our agricultural community internally? This is a big issue that will take time and work from many of us in our day-to-day lives and work in agriculture. For me it has been about:
I own and manage Cylon Rolling Acres in northwestern Wisconsin. On my farm I raise Boer - Kiko meat goats on pasture.
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Cylon (pronounced Si-lon) is the name of our township in St. Croix County, Wisconsin. Sorry fans, our farm is not named after the robots of Battlestar Galactica.