My farm may be located in rural New Zealand, an area some may think of as “hard to reach” or ”remote and isolated.” But more than 90% of the wool and meat produced on our farm is traded with other nations and consumed by people around the world.
A business with international reach would seem the complete opposite of “remote isolation.” We’re well connected with the global village and we only have to drive 20 minutes to get to a petrol station and 50 minutes before we hit a traffic light. On the other hand, we’re lacking the digital connectivity that so many others take for granted.
We live and work near the rural town of Dannevirke, in the Tararua District of New Zealand’s North Island. The population density here, in our rural areas, is less than two people per square kilometer. Our farm is located in hill country – topography typical of most of our district.
While those with cell phone coverage continue to cancel their landline phones, regarding them as hopelessly obsolete, we still completely rely on ours. At our home, we don’t have cell phone coverage at all.
And the internet often drops out altogether. On a good day, the internet speeds are about 2.5 megabytes per second (MBps) for downloading, and 0.38 MBps for uploading. The current minimum baseline standard for New Zealand is 20 MBps each way, set by government. If I have to send emails with attachments, I often have to drive to town to do so.
In 2016, our local community suffered an acute connectivity crisis. For 30% of the year, our homes and business offices didn’t have working landlines. And without reliable and sufficient cell phone and internet services, many in our community felt like we were in a communications technology black hole.
Adversity breeds innovation; this crisis was the catalyst for action to establish “Connect Tararua,” a project focused deliberately on cell phone infrastructure and service delivering mobile cell phone calling, texting and internet, wherever we are. Just like everyone else with mobile lives and businesses, farmers can’t afford to be just sitting at home waiting for a call, or trying to make calls and send emails or data – we’re on the move as well, needing to be connected regardless of where we are.
“Connect Tararua” engaged in a district-wide voluntary community effort to map the state of our cell phone coverage, working with everyone from farmers, veterinarians and stock agents to midwives, emergency responders and local government. Respecting the intimate knowledge that farmers had of their local community and landscape – we mobilized local farmers to identify potential site locations for cell phone towers. Local rural communities were tasked to undertake a survey of each household to understand the economic and social impacts, given the digital connectivity they had – or did not have.
With the existing government program, our district had been scheduled to receive one new cell phone tower. However, because of our voluntary, district-wide community initiative, strong advocacy presenting qualitative and quantitative data, the New Zealand central government has now committed to fund the building of 10 cell phone towers in the Tararua district.
This small win will make a huge difference for a lot of people – more than just our farming community. But not everyone. The project has a long way to go to deliver to those of us whom the government calls “hardest to reach.”
We need digital connectivity not just in our buildings, but also across our landscape. As farmers, we need to be able to engage with on-farm science trials, to adopt and adapt AgTech, use remote sensing tools, live-feed data systems, digital analytics, online management tools, traceability systems, online banking and government reporting, all which will enable us to create more efficiencies for the good of our staff, our livestock, our environment and resources, our business and how we can better connect with the consumers of our product around the world. All of this relies on digital connectivity.
We’re not just talking about digital connectivity for farmers, but for everyone. Getting the right digital infrastructure and services across the landscape for cell phone and internet benefits all who engage with rural New Zealand. All the urban folk who have family, commute or do business in rural areas need that infrastructure in place, too. Rural areas are not an island, and neither are the towns and cities – we are interdependent ecosystems.
This is a global issue. Digital connectivity must be delivered to the “hard to reach” parts of every country – across the landscape which produces food, feed, fuel and fiber for the rest of the world. We just need stakeholders with the willpower, commitment and finance to partner with us to make it happen. Adversity breeds innovation. It’s time for solutions now!
Mel Poulton and her husband Mike operate a family farm business raising sheep and beef in the Tararua District on New Zealand’s North Island. Mel volunteers as a member of the Global Farmer Network. www.globalfarmernetwork.org