Bringing Wi-Fi to Farmland: AgSci IT Director Joins National FCC Task Force to Connect Rural America

June 9, 2020

The Federal Communications Commission launched a new project designed to address internet connectivity on farmland, and AgSci’s own Lucas Turpin was chosen to join the effort.

An OSU alum, Turpin has worked in IT at Oregon State for 20 years, serving as Director of IT for the College of Agricultural Sciences for the past five. His appointment on the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force, which aims to support investment in high-speed internet across ag lands and rural communities, will last two years.

What is Precision Agriculture?

Plainly put, precision agriculture is when growers use technology to increase crop yields, often while lowering environmental impact—namely reducing water and pesticide use. While the idea of farming technology may summon mental images of large combines and massive harvesters, precision ag actually refers to machines with less bulk.

“When we talk about precision ag, we’re talking about thousands of little sensors across a farm,” Turpin says. “We’re talking about drones taking high def video or multispectral images. We’re talking about collecting and using data—massive amounts of data.”

These large data sets require specialized software to process, which means they need to be transmitted across the internet. Once processed, farmers receive a report that tells them which specific acres need more water, more nutrients, or more pesticide treatment. This information allows growers to treat specific plots or acres instead of the entire farm, using less pesticides and less water, which reduces run-off and environmental impact.

“They also save money and produce more, which means lower prices on the shelves,” Turpin adds.

Why the Federal Government Is Stepping In

“Internet is becoming as critical to our food systems as electricity and interstates,” Turpin says. “The problem is that most of our ag producers and communities are located in rural parts of America, which is counterintuitive to using technology—things like cloud services and big data—because these places don’t have high-speed network.”

Rural areas rarely have high-speed network because it isn’t commercially viable. Internet service providers can’t recoup infrastructure investments and make money when populations are sparse. In contrast, highly populated areas like big cities have enough consumers to quickly pay off investments and lead to profits.

The issue draws parallels to a hundred years ago, when electrical grids were being constructed across the United States.

Cities were electrified early and quickly because companies could repay the infrastructure investments. But it took the federal government coming in and subsidizing the cost to run power into rural areas to get power there. Internet is exactly the same. It will take federal engagement and support to get rural America and farmland high-speed service.

“We have to think of internet like electricity, or the highway system,” Turpin says. “Supported at the federal level to make travel across states effective to ensure the food security of all.”

The Bigger Picture

Although precision agriculture is the project’s defined goal, there are other benefits to connecting rural areas with high-speed internet. As we enter the 3rd month of a global pandemic, the picture becomes clearer than ever: The internet is as essential to modern life as power and gas.

“In this epidemic, who suffers the most?” Turpin asks. “People in urban areas with fast internet can work from home. But in rural areas they may not have that opportunity. There is a lot of overlap in the agricultural needs of the US and the needs of providing services to rural America.”

Both the agricultural needs of our country and the workforce needs for technology will only increase as the population grows.

“The amount of farmland in the US isn’t growing.” Turpin says. “If anything, it’s shrinking slightly. But the population is growing. So how do we feed more people in the next 30-50 years when our land isn’t changing? We have to drastically improve our farming processes—and that requires using technology and information. Which requires broadband internet.”

Ultimately, the outcome of the FCC Task Force will be federal programs that allow different service providers to extend their infrastructure and provide new or faster internet service to rural America focusing on agricultural needs.

Turpin’s Role

The project is broken into several working groups to address the different areas of connecting remote territories. The FCC announced these working groups earlier this year, and Turpin was assigned to the group titled: Examining Current and Future Connectivity Demand for Precision Agriculture.

“Our working group will be assessing the supply and demand aspect across different agricultural sectors,” Turpin said. “For example, we know that dairies can run without technology, as they have for hundreds of years. But nowadays, dairies can use technology to chip the cows and monitor their individual health and eating habits—which is good for animal welfare, and supports increased milk production. Different sectors have different needs.”

Although Turpin does not have a background in research or agriculture, his position in IT for the College of Agricultural Sciences makes him uniquely qualified.

“I’m not an ag expert,” Turpin says. “But because of my role here at OSU, I have access to all the experts. My role will be talking to them, having conversations, and helping to understand and establish the frame of what is possible. A lot of this is connecting disparate dots—bringing together telecoms and ag to start talking the same language. We’ll be looking for those opportunities.”

When asked what has prepared him to take on such a role, Turpin joked: “Who said I’m prepared for this?” But he was quick to point out how the collaborative nature of the college provides the support he will need.

“Our faculty here are doing great things using tech in ag, asking really important questions. My primary role is to work closely with them and understand the science they do in order to help them use technology effectively to achieve their goals.  This has helped prepare me for these multidisciplinary conversations. I’m not a scientist or a telecom person, but I can speak well enough to both to help them come together and achieve great things. I couldn’t do this if it was just me. I’m helping to represent the organization and feel like I have the support of the college behind me.”