Do you remember the days of dial-up? Web pages would scroll
down the screen in fits and starts. Eventually you could start reading unless
the web page designer decided to stick a 200K image on the page. Then . . .
forget it. Thing of the past? Wrong.
In rural America, slow access to the Internet can be the
norm, and the economic and community development impact is significant. The
USDA states in an August 2009 report that “any shortfall in rural broadband
availability is an implicit loss in economic opportunity for businesses,
consumers and governments.”
That’s why it was encouraging to learn that the stimulus act
appropriated $7.2 billion to expand broadband access across the U.S. That
initiative is grinding its way through the system, but farmers need help right
The Rural Electrification Act of the 1930s brought power to
rural areas. Today’s farmers, especially small farmers, need similar help not
only tapping into the fire hose of information and opportunities available to
them, but getting connected to guidance on maximizing its usefulness. Imagine
the options: real-time access to weather and crop reports, databases of local
and national agricultural extension programs, ordering parts and supplies,
acquiring new skills through distance learning, even building an online
marketing presence using low bandwidth social media tools.
“One of the salient features of the Internet is its capacity
to provide information quickly and cheaply compared to other dissemination
methods,” the USDA points out. But what if you’re over 55 (the average age of a
farmer in America), dead tired from a day on the farm, and going online—if you
can get online—just feels like too daunting a challenge?
This is where the new CCC—the Civilian Connectivity Corp—can
ride to the rescue. Like the Civilian Conservation Corp of the Depression, the
core will be made up of the unemployed, in this case recent college grads. Why
recent graduates? Because in this country no group is more plugged into the
immediate application of Internet tools and technology. They are experts in
social media, Google searches and Facebook. What would seem insurmountable to
an older generation is a cakewalk for these young ’uns, who themselves are
facing an unprecedented slump in hiring just as student loans are coming due.
The first step is to train the students in what farmers need
and then—very quickly—get the CCC into the field. Each staffer spends one week
at a time setting up and populating a blog, a Facebook page, and creating
bookmarks on the farmer’s web browser for the sites he will be using daily in
This is not, however, a “set and forget’ situation. The CCC
staffer is not only responsible for setting the farmer up initially, she will
also need to stay in touch to ensure that the tools are being used
appropriately. One staffer could help manage the online tools and engagement
for two dozen farms, providing the inspiration for, and pipeline to, a host of
new opportunities. Like the original CCC, these workers would have to make at
least a six-month commitment. And during that time their college loan payments
would be put on hold.
In running the blog Friend of the Farmer, I have observed
digital haves and have-nots: farmers who have set up decent web sites or
Facebook pages, and others who can barely send an email. As I was interviewing
one New York farmer, he took a call from a wholesale prospect, a four-star
chef. How did the chef find out about him? Through a web site and blog created
by an ambitious staffer (and recent college grad).
Some people see getting a business online as complicated and
costly. It simply doesn’t have to be that way. The original Civilian
Conservation Corps, one of the most successful New Deal programs of the Great
Depression, left a legacy of great public works. With the farmer-friendly
updated version of the CCC funded at Depression-level wages, everyone comes out
For more on farming and food, visit Friend of the Farmer