SUMMERS COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA - Work starts early at Sprouting Farms in Summers County, West Virginia.
Employees in this rural region of the state handpick the organic produce, rinse, prepare and box it up on site, ready to distribute to area customers.
Connectivity is key
The farm also serves as a training center for aspiring farmers who want to learn how to grow — and market — sustainable produce.
The challenge is making that process profitable, says project director Fritz Boettner.
"Our bottom line, everything that we do here, is to make farming a profitable business for every farmer, not just on this farm, but every farmer in the state," he says. "So in order to improve the bottom line for the farmer, we have to keep what I would call the food hub costs down. So that's the cost of aggregation, distribution, marketing, all those things."
And that, he adds, takes broadband connectivity, which is limited or unavailable in rural areas such as this.
"Right now I would say half of our farmers maybe do not have access to solid internet or even cellphone communication to make these types of transactions happen," he says.
And while there is fiber-optic cable available nearby, it would cost Boettner $500 a month, plus a $3,000 installation fee, to access it — a price, he says, that's simply too expensive for small businesses like his.
"It's just frustrating to know that very high-speed internet exists right down the road at a public school, and it can't find its way here," he says. "And I'm sure in West Virginia, in these small rural towns like this, it's like this everywhere."
The magic of broadband
In the town of Hinton, a 30-minute drive from Sprouting Farms, connectivity is not an issue.
Once a thriving railroad community, the town now depends on high-speed internet to connect with the outside world.
Ken Allman, who owns several businesses in the area, says his main online business venture, which connects hospitals and physicians around the world, would not exist without that access.
"The fact that our team of people in Hinton, West Virginia, are working with people in Mumbai, India, or in Tel Aviv, Israel, to solve problems in our field across the U.S. speaks to the magic of what broadband and mobile can do in a small community," he says.
Fiber of the community
The town is a perfect example of adaptation.
"Hinton wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the railroad in the 1870s," Allman says. "The railroad was the broadband of the time. It brought the mail, it brought the people, it brought the cargo. It was the broadband of the time."
Now broadband is the fiber-optic cable that runs through the community and makes commerce possible.
"It's very difficult to operate a business without reliable broadband," Allman says. "We require it to support our back office functions, as well as the services we deliver to our clients. ... We also need mobile to support our people while they're trying to do their jobs.
"It's very difficult to operate a business without reliable broadband, without reliable mobile communications as well," he says. "The two really complement each other, and you need them in order to function on a day-to-day basis."
An essential part of modern life
Joe Brouse agrees.
As executive director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, his job is to help stimulate and promote economic development in the region.
But he says lack of connectivity is hindering that objective.
"This problem with coverage is affecting everyone," he says. "I mean, it's an ecosystem. You have to have businesses, they have to have employees, employees have to have places to live, and parents have to have good schools for their children. Part of being a good school in this day and age is having access to broadband.
"So businesses expect it. Households expect it. If people want to live here, they need to have access. It's an aspect of being in the modern world."
Hills and valleys
The topography of the state and low population levels are among the reasons why affordable broadband is lacking, he says.
"Population, customers, are figured into models of profitability."
But he remains hopeful.
"Our economic development agency works with the state of West Virginia, with our congressional offices who have been leaders on this issue, as well as other public development agencies, to look at creative solutions that might involve a mixture of grant and loan programs, to entities that can own the fiber [-optic cable] and help with the delivery system," he says.
"It's a different model than just having the provider come in, but it's a model that we can own, and it's a model that will allow us to get there quicker," he adds.
He points to the town of Hinton as an ideal model.
"By many standards, it's a small place, but it's actually ahead of the game in terms of providing broadband, and that's the story we want to tell all over the state in rural Appalachia."
That's encouraging news for Fritz Boettner.
"If I'm thinking about the future, and we're going to grow these farmers, and they're going to be doing more, we want more farmers in the network. That connectivity issue needs to be dealt with."