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Technology and rural America

New technology holds promise for America’s small farms and rural businesses, but public-sector involvement — such as for expanding rural broadband access — is needed for that promise to be realized.

So said Doug Jackson-Smith, professor of water security and rural sociology in The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), in comments delivered Jan. 9 in Washington, D.C., to the U.S. House Committee on Small Business’ Subcommittee on Innovation and Workforce Development.

“New technology offers opportunities for small businesses, especially small farmers,” Jackson-Smith said at a hearing convened by the subcommittee titled “Farming in the 21st Century: The Impacts of Agriculture Technology in Rural America.” “But without a public investment and strategy, it probably won’t have that effect.”

Jackson-Smith is a faculty member with Ohio State’s Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) and CFAES’ School of Environment and Natural Resources.

U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson of Zanesville, Ohio, the subcommittee’s ranking member, introduced Jackson-Smith at the hearing. Jackson-Smith was one of four witnesses to be called.

Broadband refers to high-speed internet access — technology such as cable modems, digital subscriber lines (DSL), and 5G wireless that can transmit huge amounts of data very quickly. The problem, however, is that broadband technology has been slow to reach America’s rural areas, because those areas often don’t have enough potential subscribers to make it worth a private internet company’s investment in the needed infrastructure.

That’s where the public sector can help, Jackson-Smith told the subcommittee. Among his comments, he said further legislation to expand broadband would make it possible for small farms and rural businesses to start using a range of new, agriculture-related technologies — helpful innovations in the areas of data management, precision agriculture, field-condition sensors, direct marketing, and product tracking, among others.

“Historically, (the United States) has always had policies that invested in infrastructure in places where it didn’t make sense for the private sector to invest,” Jackson-Smith said, with America’s rural electrification program in the 1930s as an example.

There’s a role for the federal government and other public-sector organizations, together with research universities such as Ohio State, “to ensure that some niches get filled that otherwise might not be profitable enough for large international businesses to invest in,” he said.

Jackson-Smith said InFACT researchers, for their part, are collaborating with farmers to boost the performance of diversified farms, which often are small or midsize farms; to improve the linkages between those farms and emerging markets; and to expand the opportunities for nonfarm businesses throughout diversified food supply chains.

Supporting technology could provide “a foundation for reinvigorating small businesses in rural America,” he said.

The subcommittee’s initial invitation to testify and attend the hearing went to Casey Hoy, InFACT’s faculty director, based on a Congressional briefing Hoy provided three years ago. But Hoy’s travel schedule wouldn’t allow him to attend the hearing, so Jackson-Smith took his place.

Hoy is also Ohio State’s Kellogg Endowed Chair in Agricultural Ecosystem Management and a professor in CFAES’ Department of Entomology.

Together, Hoy and Jackson-Smith prepared the submitted written testimony that was discussed at the hearing.

Hoy said the subcommittee’s focus, new opportunities for strengthening rural America, was right in InFACT’s wheelhouse. As a part of Ohio State’s Discovery Themes Initiative, the InFACT program is working to design and implement sustainable food systems — food systems that are good for people, animals, and the environment, with successful small farms and rural businesses an important part.

Ohio State’s Discovery Themes are programs that are ramping up and focusing expertise from across the university to address society’s big challenges.

InFACT’s efforts to diversify agriculture and rural economies, and to do it using a systems approach, led to the subcommittee’s invitation, Jackson-Smith said after the hearing.

“We’re at the cutting edge in some of that work,” he said. “We’ve become a national leader in this topic area.”

Hoy said Congress reaching out to Ohio State in such a way, for information and ideas to inform legislation, is important.

“It shows,” he said, “that Ohio State and the research we do serves both Ohio and the entire nation.”

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