Texas farms are increasing Internet use

Over half of all Texas farms have some type of Internet access, according to the latest census data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“These data suggest more agricultural producers are using the Internet as a source of information and for business management,” said Dr. Dean McCorkle, Texas AgriLife Extension Service economist. McCorkle and agricultural economics colleagues Dr. Gene Nelson and Dan Hanselka have researched Texas-specific census data involving Internet use by income level.

The 2007 census data indicates 52.5 percent of Texas farm operations have Internet access, up from 49.6 percent in the 2002 census. For all U.S. farms, 57 percent had Internet access in 2007 and 58 percent of those reported having a high-speed connection.

“From marketing to keeping track of current prices for products being sold, producers are using the Internet as an integral means of conducting day-to-day business,” McCorkle said. “They’re also using it for financial management. Many people are able to access their bank accounts and keep track of their financial situation.”

There are also more applications and services to track weather and monitor evapo-transpiration data “to fine-tune irrigation applications,” Nelson said.

Across Texas, 76 percent of the larger farms (with annual sales of $250,000 or more) had Internet access, compared to 50 percent of the smaller farms (with less than $25,000 annual sales). This suggests the importance of Internet access to the successful management of these larger farm and ranch operations, the researchers said.

Internet access has changed the daily routines of many agricultural producers, they said.

“Used to, many producers would wake up and listen to the local radio station for the latest market reports. Throughout the day, they might call to the local grain elevator to get the latest price quotes,” Nelson said. “What’s changed is local radio stations don’t carry as much of that type of information as they used to. Local elevators had recorded messages and now they put that information up on the Web. Now, some producers have this information available on their smart phones if they are located close enough to a metropolitan center.”

Internet access is more readily available in higher populated areas, especially in counties near large metropolitan areas like San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Internet use for farms in proximity to these urban areas can be as high as 60 percent or more. By comparison, use is less than 40 percent in large portions of deep South Texas.

“Obviously, the rural areas surrounded by large metropolitan cities will have better access to Internet services,” Hanselka said. “We can only predict there will be expanded services in the future as we see continued growth in the communications sectors and more demand by agricultural producers who incorporate technology into their operations.”

The federal stimulus package is providing funds, and there will be opportunities for local utilities and rural electric cooperatives to provide Internet support in the future.

Expansion of Internet service to rural areas across the U.S. is getting the support of federal programs. Grant and loan funding for rural broadband is included in both the rural development title of the farm bill and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, said Rebekka Dudensing, AgriLife Extension economist for community economic development.

“There are organizations, like the One Economy Corporation and even some cooperative extension services, that partner with communities throughout the U.S. to help rural communities gain digital access,” she said. “Convincing broadband companies to serve less dense market areas remains a challenge, but it is being done. Groups of local businesses sometimes step to the plate as anchor customers. They benefit from broadband for their businesses and their anchor use allows the service to be provided to the entire community.”

In many cases, local businesses and citizens are working together through community organizations to get broadband access, Dudensing said.

“Schools and libraries are often the broadband anchors in many rural communities,” she said. “But the students and their parents also need access at home.”

“In the future, Internet use is going to become even more prevalent in everyday life,” Dudensing said. “When you get into the rural areas, however, if you don’t have access, that’s going to be a real disadvantage in terms of the future – it’s education, it’s medical services, it’s a whole range of things involved.”

Complete census data are available at http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/.

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