By Frank Allen and Rommy Haines, Aroostook County Farm Bureau
Jim and Megan Gerritsen have done all the right things to keep their small family potato farm sustainable and profitable. They have sized their operation to fit the land and machinery they have available. Rather than be held hostage to uncertainty of a commodity market, they have developed a robust niche market with an active list of 1,200 direct customers.
They offer quality specialty products which customers often can’t find elsewhere. They use all the marketing systems available to them to communicate regularly with their customers. They acknowledge, pack and ship orders as fast as they come in. They understand and embrace social media, to the point where 75 percent of their sales now come over the Internet.
Attend one of those Extension Service or Ag Department seminars on how to operate a small family farm in the 21st Century, and what you’ll be told is, “Do it the way Jim and Megan are doing it.”
But they still have one big problem.
While many farms are finding they can’t keep up with the Internet, in Jim and Megan’s situation it’s the Internet that can’t keep up with their farm.
The Gerritsen’s are victims of what has become known as the “Last Mile” problem, where rural homes and businesses are close to a robust and fast Internet connection but can’t quite get there from here. In the Gerritsen’s case, it’s actually a half-mile problem – that’s how far their farm office is from an existing Fairpoint-owned fiber optic Internet cable in the town of Bridgewater.
He has investigated every possible solution to connect to that cable, but found no affordable way to do so. Estimates for installing fiber from that line to his farm, on already existing poles, have run from $15,000 to $25,000, and monthly costs beyond that have ranged as high as $350 a month.
It turns out that while hundreds of millions of public and private dollars have been spent in Maine running fiber optic cable to schools, institutions and major cities throughout Maine, not much of that project money has gone into making the “Last Mile” connections in rural areas.
So, the Gerritsen’s Wood Prairie Farm (http://www.woodprairie.com) is forced to operate over a wire-less Internet connection that is slow and often unreliable due to weather, and limited band-width. During peak shipping season this year the farm lost its wireless Internet connection several times due to bad weather. These periodic interruptions limited the ability to accept and respond to orders, process credit card transactions, purchase supplies and schedule deliveries. With no ability to take orders in, they couldn’t pack orders out, so the staff could only sit and wait. Gerritsen estimates he lost $10,000 this packing season between losing orders that couldn’t get through and paying his order takers and packers to sit and wait until an service was restored.
It’s a problem he’s dealt with for years, so last August Jim came to the Aroostook County Farm Bureau annual meeting and proposed a change in state law that would make it a priority to get broadband Internet to every un-served area in Maine before additional funds were used to speed up service for those who already have Internet that meets state standards.
“Basically,” he says, “the idea is if there’s a road going by your place, and there’s are poles along that road with phone and electricity, there ought to also be fiber Internet.”
The proposal called for increased state funding for ConnectME, the state agency charged with bringing broadband Internet to all of Maine, to be used exclusively for areas currently unserved. His resolution passed and was brought to the Maine Farm Bureau annual meeting in November, where it passed unanimously.
With that vote, it became Maine Farm Bureau policy. As a result, where there had been one farm with a problem, there was a state-wide organization looking for a solution, and Farm Bureau Executive Secretary and Legislative Agent Jon Olson went to work.
Rep. Robert Saucier of Presque Isle agreed to sponsor the bill, which was designated LD 826, An Act to Promote Maine’s Economic Development and Critical Communications for Rural Family Farms, Businesses and Residences by Strategic Public Investments in High-speed Internet. Co-sponsors who signed on included three other members of the legislature from Aroostook County, Sen. Peter Edgecomb, Rep. John Martin and Rep. McElwee of Caribou; along with Reps. Russell Black of Wilton, MaryAnne Kinney of Knox and Don Marean of Hollis, all Farm Bureau members; Reps. Michelle Dunphy of Old Town and William Noon of Sanford, both members of the Legislature’s Agriculture committee; and Rep. Jonathan Kinney of Limington.
A working group of about 20 people was formed in early December to plan the logistics of getting people to Augusta to support the concept before the Maine Legislature. As word of the Farm Bureau proposal spread, other farms businesses across Maine joined in and support for the legislation grew. Soon the working group included people not only from the “rural” areas of Aroostook, Washington, Piscataquis, Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, but also from parts of Penobscot and even Cumberland Counties where broadband Internet service was not available.
Getting rural people to go to Augusta is not an easy task. It takes, not only time, but money to make the trip from the rural corners of Maine. In what seemed a somewhat ironic project, Aroostook Farm Bureau turned to the Internet to raise money to get better Internet. Using a crowd-funding page, the county raised $1,800 to pay travel expenses for two sessions in Augusta – the first to staff a table at Agriculture Day in the legislature, the second for the public hearing on LD 826.
At Ag Day, the Farm Bureau partnered with ConnectME, showing a state-wide map detailing Internet availability overlaid with the locations of the farms of most of the Farm Bureau members. The map and other data from Connect ME showed that six percent of Maine has no access to broadband Internet and that many farmers are in that six percent. A number of legislators, along with Maine Gov. Paul LePage, stopped by to examine the map and discuss the need for better rural broadband.
The hearing a couple of weeks later was an eye-opener – not for Farm Bureau but for the members of the Legislature’s committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology. Due to the nature of its work, this committee generally deals with the same corps of utility lobbyists, and rarely has a lot of public comment on bills it is considering. So it was a surprise to some members to walk into a room packed with farmers (dressed like farmers, not in three-piece suits).
Just how rare it was for this committee to be considering a bill aimed at farmers and rural Maine? Olson, who has been Farm Bureau’s lobbyist for 34 years, is a familiar face in the halls of the Legislature and often testifies on several bills in one day, told the committee this was the first time he had ever appeared before them.
In his testimony, Olson noted that when he started with Farm Bureau, for farmers to take orders and cor-respond with customers and vendors “all that a farmer needed was a land-line phone line and he was ready to go.” (Gerritsen recalls that when he was building up his farm he had a phone installed be-fore he brought in electricity.)
The list of persons in sup-port of the bill was long, and included not only farmers and representa-tives of farm agencies, but also other groups interested in bringing broadband to rural Maine. In all, more than 30 people testified at the hearing. No one spoke against the bill.
At the start of the legislative session, this committee was considering about 35 broadband-related bills. Many of them got consolidated, and only a handful made it through the House and Senate. Some of them await funding based on the final state budget and whether the Appropriations Committee chooses to fund them.
LD 826, meanwhile, was not sent to the full legislature, but was carried over to the next session of the legislature in 2016. This will allow reconsideration of its concept without getting in the middle of the budget battles in the Legislature. It gives Farm Bureau time over the summer and fall to continue work on its behalf. The Aroostook County Farm Bureau, which has taken the lead on promoting the bill, will be collecting stories from Farm Bureau members about their need for better Internet. We believe the bill was held over, and not rejected, due to the participation by Farm Bureau members, the interest the committee took in their situation, and the desire to see the broadband infrastructure built out over the entire state, just the way telephone and electric service now are.
The work to date on LD 826 – and the work to be done going forward – is a good example of how one Maine farmer with a problem can quickly discover he’s not alone when he reaches out to Maine Farm Bureau to build a coalition that works to benefit all Maine farmers.