Propane Proponents

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

If you live in rural America, you’re familiar with the white or silver propane tanks that sit outside country homes. Filled with liquefied petroleum (LP) gas, these tanks provide fuel for furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers, kitchen stoves, generators and fireplaces.

Go beyond the house, however, and you’ll find that propane also has an important place on the farm. Agricultural uses for propane include irrigating fields, drying grain, powering equipment, and heating animal confinement facilities and greenhouses. In fact, some 40 percent of U.S. farms use propane in their operations, according to the Propane Education and Research Council.

Availability and affordability are two big reasons why farmers and rural homeowners use propane as an alternative to electricity, natural gas or diesel. In many areas, it may be the only energy option. In other cases, it’s the choice that is most economical, efficient and environmentally friendly.

For Aaron Ray Collett, who built three large poultry barns last year on his farm near Warrensburg, Mo., reliability made propane the most attractive option to power the heaters that provide optimum temperatures for the broilers he raises on contract with Tyson.

“You need heaters running at full capacity on a cold windy day in January, or you start losing chickens,” Collett said. A computerized system monitors the barns, and when the temperature goes above or below a pre-set range, the system calls his cell phone or one of his family partners: his wife, Colette; son, Curtis; and Curtis’s wife, Tabbatha.

Each chicken barn, which spans the length of two football fields, is equipped with three 1,000-gallon tanks to power 52 heaters that are 40,000-Btu each. In the winter, the new chicks must be kept at 88 degrees. By the time they’re ready for processing about seven weeks later, the computer system has gradually lowered the temperature 52 degrees.

Collett carefully monitors tank levels, and when supply falls to 45 percent, he orders a delivery from MFA Oil Company, a farmer-owned cooperative that’s the seventh-largest propane retailer in the U.S. today. The company, which was established by MFA Incorporated in 1929, began delivering propane to farmers in the 1960s. The two cooperatives split apart by mutual agreement in 1985, but continue a close working relationship. Today, propane accounts for 34 percent of MFA Oil’s annual earnings. The company also sells refined petroleum and operates convenience stores and retail automotive franchises.

“When you’re raising 114,000 chickens, you’ve got to have a dependable, guaranteed source of propane,” said Collett, who also raises cow/calf pairs along with corn and soybeans. “We’ve been with MFA Oil for years, and we’re well satisfied.”

Fuel for the field

Along with animal production facilities, propane is also prominent in many row-crop operations. In fact, more than 90 percent of the nation’s grain bin dryers use propane as their energy source, according to PERC.

Having a reliable system for drying grain quickly is important for both efficiency and profitability on the farm of John “Junior” Mehrens in Lincoln, Mo. He uses propane to power the dryers on three 12,000-bushel grain bins where he stores the harvest from his 1,400 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat.

“Propane has really paid off the last several years at harvest for me,” Mehrens said. “I don’t have enough storage for all my corn, especially since we’ve had such good yields. In two to three days, I can have the whole bin dry with propane and get it hauled out as quickly as possible so I can hold the rest of my crop.”

Two 1,000-gallon propane tanks—also filled by MFA Oil—fuel the grain bin dryers. Mehrens, who double-crops his wheat with soybeans, said the fast drying capability helps him preserve the integrity of his grain while allowing him to manage his crop rotation more effectively.

“I grow quite a bit of wheat, and whenever you can harvest it early, you get a better quality grain,” he explained. “Then, if you dry it right, you can keep that quality. It’s so much better, and I can get back in the field to plant beans sooner.”

Propane will also be powering the large-capacity dryers at MFA Incorporated’s new high-speed grain-handling operation in north central Missouri near Hamilton. When completed in June, the rail facility will consist of 2 million bushels of permanent storage and 1.5 million bushels of temporary storage.

“It takes a lot of propane to run grain dryers of this capacity,” said Craig Childs, MFA senior vice president of Agri Services. “We will be able to dry up to 5,000 bushels per hour.”

The project is a joint venture with MFA Oil, which installed a 60,000-gallon propane tank on site to handle the grain-drying needs.

“First of all, the closest natural gas line is two miles away, and the cost to move it is about $1 million per mile,” said Mitch Dawson, MFA Incorporated director of grain operations. “That, coupled with the fact that we’re partners with MFA Oil, just made sense to go the propane route. They made putting in that large tank so economical, it was no comparison.”

In addition to grain drying, irrigation is also a growing agricultural use for propane, said Jon Ihler, vice president of sales and marketing for MFA Oil. Today’s propane-powered irrigation engines are comparable in operation costs to electric motors—and considerably less to purchase than diesel irrigation engines. They can also significantly reduce fuel costs and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than diesel and gasoline systems.

“We are seeing a large increase in demand from irrigators who use propane to fuel their pumps instead of diesel,” Ihler said. “We also see some farmers using portable propane-powered burners to control weeds in their fields.”

Efficient energy

For five years now, the Propane Education and Research Council has gathered research on farmers who switch to propane. The council’s studies show that farmers are seeing high performance ratings, improved efficiency and significant cost savings when switching to propane-powered farm equipment, according to Cinch Munson, PERC director of ag business development.

“Over 400 producers from 32 states have reduced fuel costs by an average of 49 percent when compared to similar diesel engines,” he said. “In addition, propane grain dryer operators saved an average of nearly 40 percent and gained more efficient energy consumption.”

While the models and type of propane equipment varied over the years and among farmers, Munson continued, more than 90 percent of participants rated engine and equipment performance as a 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale, with 5 being high-performing.

PERC, which is funded by the propane industry through a check-off program similar to corn and soybean check-offs, is also working with companies to develop new technology in propane-powered equipment such as irrigation engines, grain dryers, flame-weeding systems and more.

In addition to efficiencies in costs and consumption, propane is a domestic product, and supply is abundant and reliable. More than 98 percent of propane consumed in the U.S. is produced in North America. Plus, propane allows farmers the flexibility to place power where they need it. There’s no need to locate near natural gas or run a new electric line: the propane will come to you.

“Propane is a vital, economical energy source for rural America,” Ihler said. “And it remains a good buy for farmers.”

Now’s the time to fill the tank

While propane prices fluctuate throughout the year, they generally rise with higher demand in the winter when people need more to heat homes and businesses, Ihler explained.

“Historically, late spring through August is a good time to buy,” he said. “You get your best buys when demand falls. We encourage customers to keep their tanks full because it helps spread the demand throughout the year.”

For more information on propane programs and options, visit your MFA Oil retailer or online at www.mfaoil.com/productsservices/propane.

Hauling hope

Written by Allison Jenkins and Kerri Lotven on .

Fueled by high winds and dry conditions, the wildfires that swept across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado on March 6 and 7 burned at highway speeds—fast, furious and unfeeling.

On his farm near Englewood, Kan., David Clawson frantically plowed a firebreak to protect his house and barn as a wall of flames threatened. He and volunteer firefighters fought a losing battle against the uncontrollable blaze, which consumed nearly everything in its path.

His home was saved, but the 53-year-old farmer figures he lost 7,000 to 8,000 acres of grazing land and 35 head of cattle along with farm buildings, hay and equipment. Still, he describes his family’s loss as “minimal” compared to others who lost much more.

“We’re all neighbors and friends here, and my heart goes out to everyone affected,” said Clawson, who also serves as president of the Kansas Livestock Association. “We still don’t know the full extent of what has been lost and what it will take to rebuild, but we are a strong community who looks out for one another. We’ll get through this.”

The fires incinerated some 2 million acres, mostly rural farmland, across the four states. Seven people died. Thousands of animals were injured or killed—livestock, horses, pets and wildlife. Undetermined miles of fences were ruined. Hundreds of structures were destroyed, including homes, barns, sheds and other buildings.

Kansas was hit particularly hard, with some 651,000 acres burned in what was the largest wildfire in the state’s history.

Some 500 miles away on her farm in Ashland, Mo., Courtney Collins began hearing heart-wrenching stories about the wildfire’s impact and knew she had to do something. Within a week, she had coordinated donations of more than 1,000 round bales of hay along with transportation to haul them to Kansas and Oklahoma.

“Farmers are going to lend a hand, no matter what,” Collins said. “We’re one big family. These farmers lost their livelihood in a matter of minutes. They watched their animals die and their houses burn. Their hay is gone, their grass is gone, so they have nothing to feed the livestock that are left. We had to help.”

Collins and a convoy of nearly 20 trucks and trailers from across mid-Missouri headed West on March 17 with hay, fencing materials, milk replacer and other much-needed farm supplies. Thirteen hours and seven blown-out tires later, they arrived at the donation drop point at Ashland Feed and Seed, a local farm supply store and feed mill in Ashland, Kan.

“We work hand in hand with the farmers who are affected by this disaster. They’re the ones who helped build our business to what it is today,” said Janell Smit, Ashland Feed and Seed owner. “We decided coordinating donations was the best way we could help. We’ve taken calls from all over the United States, from farmers and ranchers who have generously donated hay and supplies. We’ve been blessed. There are so many wonderful people throughout rural America.”

In describing the situation, Smit recounted story after story of neighbors who desperately tried to save their animals, homes and property while facing imminent danger. Residents evacuated to nearby towns with eerily appropriate names such as Protection and Coldwater while lush, green wheat fields became a haven for people and cattle caught in the midst of hellish conditions.

“Ashland was essentially in a ring of fire. It moved so fast, and the winds were so high, it was like a flame-thrower,” Smit said. “The fire was to the magnitude that our volunteer firefighters couldn’t get it under control. There were so many people who were one step away from making the wrong move and losing their lives. It’s truly amazing we aren’t burying a lot more of our friends.”

As word spread—mainly through social media channels—aid has poured into the Southern Plains from countless farmers, truckers, companies and agricultural organizations. The convoy organized by Collins is one of many that have hauled donated hay and supplies from the Show-Me State. MFA Incorporated worked with the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association to help arrange transportation and provide financial assistance for fuel and freight.

With his own time and truck, Marc “Tiny” Rackers, MFA manager of highway transportation, made two trips in two days to Ashland, Kan., with trailerloads of hay donated by local farmers—Matt Ashley and Ryan Groepper of Ashley Farms in Clarksburg, Mo., and Glen Cope of Aurora, Mo. In total, Rackers traveled some 2,300 miles and said he’d gladly “do it again.”

“If I get a chance, I’ll go back with another load,” he said. “In agriculture, we have to stick together. One of these days, we might find ourselves in the same predicament, and I know those farmers would be there for us.”

On Rackers’ second trip to Kansas, Cope and his 12-year-old son, Orran, followed him with their own gooseneck trailer full of hay along with barbed wire, T-posts and milk replacer donated by MFA’s Co-op Association No. 86 in Aurora. The Missourians took those loads to Gardiner Angus Ranch in Ashland, Kan., where more than 500 cattle were killed in the fires and nearly 42,000 acres and 6,000 round bales of hay were burned.

“Seeing the devastation firsthand really put the needs of those farmers into perspective,” said Cope, who also serves on MFA Incorporated’s board of directors. “I’m proud that MFA didn’t sit on the sidelines but took an active role to help their fellow farmers, even though they’re not in our territory. We’re all in this together.”

Even Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn took note of the outpouring of help from her home state.

“State lines do not separate us when a fellow farmer or rancher is in need,” she wrote in a blog post March 15. “When word hit Missouri about the wildfires, farmers and ranchers started asking how they could help. Donations and, most importantly, prayers, were offered up in a matter of hours. I’m certain the ranchers must have felt a sense of relief and comfort knowing they were not alone in the battle they were fighting.”

Along with monetary donations to wildfire relief funds, fencing supplies are the biggest need right now, Smit said. She estimated that replacing fences can cost up to $10,000 per mile or even more.

Total animal losses are still being tallied but could surpass 10,000 head, especially when unborn calves are counted. The region’s ranches were in the heart of calving season, and many of the newborns died or were left orphaned. 

Weeks later, ranchers such as Clawson were still euthanizing cattle that were too badly injured in the fires to survive. He described the gruesome task as “mental torment.”

“Most of these cows were calving, and the farmers were trying to move their herds to the wheat pastures, but the mamas didn’t want to leave their babies behind. It’s nature,” Smit said. “They could sense something in the air, but they didn’t want to move, and that’s how a lot of them got trapped.”

The USDA has made more than $6 million in funding available to implement practices that will help farmers and landowners affected by the wildfires and is allowing emergency grazing of CRP land. Still, Smit said she’s been disheartened by the lack of coverage in the mainstream media. She cautions that assistance will be needed long term.

“We’re not going to recover from this immediately,” she said. “We’re going to have a need for the next few months and down the road. After the newness of the story wears off, our concern is that we’re going to be swept under the rug, and then we’ll be in a heck of a bind.”

As welcomed rains fell on the scorched ground in late March, the rebuilding process was in full swing. Clawson has started the daunting task of putting up perimeter fence and said he’s grateful for the help and contributions from his extended agricultural community across the country. Among those lending their support were Courtney Collins and some of the other mid-Missouri convoy volunteers who ended up taking donations directly to his farm. Collins has also vowed to come back and help with fencing in the future.

“The healing has begun because of those acts of kindness from people in agriculture who have showed up to help us, love on us and work alongside us,” Clawson said. “It’s been so heartwarming to know we have the type of community that comes together when a disaster like this happens. It restores your faith in humanity.”  

How you can help

While there has been overwhelming response from MFA country to help victims of the recent wildfires in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado, those affected are expecting a long road to recovery.

“While this disaster is top of mind for many people right now, there will be needs for months and years to come,” said Jonathan Cutler, president of RanchAid, a non-profit entity dedicated to helping large animals in distressed situations. “Farmers likely won’t be able to graze this year and many will have to re-seed pastures. We’ve had a significant amount of hay donated, but we only have supplies for a few months without grass available.”

RanchAid stepped in after the wildfires to help identify needs, coordinate destinations for donations and work out logistics for volunteers who hauled hay and other supplies to the region.

“In face of adversity, you need to have a light,” Cutler said. “People are hurting and don’t know what to do, where to start. They need a plan.”

As producers continue to assess damage, Cutler said fencing supplies such as T-posts, corner posts and barbed wire are the most universally needed. Plenty of food, clothing and tack have been donated, he said. Financial contributions that directly support the farmers and ranchers are also encouraged. A link to some wildfire relief resources can be found on MFA Incorporated’s website at www.mfa-inc.com and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s website at www.beefusa.org/firereliefresources.aspx.


4R advocates lead by example

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

Practicing the 4R principles—right fertilizer at the right rate, right time and right placement—is ingrained in Lynn Fahrmeier’s farming philosophy. When he began raising row crops and livestock with his father in the 1980s, Fahrmeier said he recognized the need for sustainability and stewardship on their operation in Wellington, Mo.

Now, those efforts have been recognized nationally with the 4R Advocate Award, presented annually by The Fertilizer Institute to champions of nutrient management. Fahrmeier and MFA Precision Ag Specialist Scott Bergsieker were awarded the honor on March 3 at the Commodity Classic in San Antonio.

Farhmeier farms 2,300 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat and raises 200 Katahdin sheep, 40 head of cattle and eight hives of honey bees. He said the goals of his operation are to improve profitability, leave the farm in better condition for future generations, incorporate a balanced approach to productivity and reduce impacts to the environment.

In the late 1980s, Fahrmeier switched from conservation tilling to no-till, except on acres with heavy clay soils that required vertical tillage. When soil-sampling shifted from field composite samples to 2.5-acre grids in the mid-1990s, he was all for it.

“I’ve always believed in the importance of soil sampling,” Fahrmeier said. “I’m just too tight to throw fertilizer on the ground not knowing if it needed it or not. Now it’s all part of the 4Rs, and we sample by management zone, which helps us put the right product in the right place and in the right amount. If you’re not sampling, you’re guessing.”

Bergsieker works with Fahrmeier through MFA Agri Services in Lexington to develop these management zones using data the progressive producer has collected through the years. In addition to soil-sampling records, Fahrmeier began collecting yield data in 1995.

“At that time, there were only three yield monitors in the state of Missouri,” Fahrmeier said. “Two of them were based out of Lexington, and I was one of them.”

The longevity of this data benefits both Bergsieker and Fahrmeier when they sit down to develop the farm’s management zones. Recently, it held added value when they worked together with Matt Stock, MFA precision account sales manager, to retrofit Fahrmeier’s John Deere 1790 planter with Precision Planting’s vSet Select meter. This technology enables Fahrmeier to change seed varieties during planting without getting out of the tractor. This never-before-attempted project took time, effort, teamwork and collaboration with Precision Planting’s own staff to work out the kinks they encountered in the process, Fahrmeier said.

“I guess I like to keep my fingers bloody being on the cutting edge of stuff,” Fahrmeier joked. “But, if this technology works in the I-states where they don’t have nearly as much variability, then it should really work here. That’s the theory.”

He used the multi-variety capabilities on his corn acres for the first time in 2016. This year, the team will analyze his last six years of soybean yield data to build a new prescription from scratch, rotating those corn acres to soybean acres.

“Just recently, Lynn and I met to determine where the management zones will be,” Bergsieker said. “Once your zones are figured out, you need to work with your seed folks to determine what varieties or hybrids will work best. It really takes a group effort to get the planter prescription right.”

Fahrmeier and Bergsieker said they look to the recommended 4R principles when planning fertilizer applications. According to The Fertilizer Institute, these principles were designed collaboratively by industry leaders to benefit the environment and producers’ bottom line.

Fahrmeier applies nitrogen with N-serve, a nitrogen stabilizer, in the fall. He also uses variable-rate technology for phosphorus and potassium application in the fall or spring.

“Lynn likes to be the first to try something new,” Bergsieker said. “It’s in his blood. He wants to do the right thing while increasing production to feed a growing population. As a precision ag specialist, it’s my duty to make sure every pound of fertilizer ends up in Lynn’s crops. By applying 4R nutrient stewardship practices, we get the job done.”

To keep nutrients in the fields, Fahrmeier flies in a winter rye, turnip and radish cover crop mix on 25 to 50 percent of his corn acres into the standing corn crop. Cattle and sheep then rotationally graze those cover crops in the fall and spring to prevent overgrazing traditional pasture ground.

To prevent runoff, Fahrmeier created terraces in his hilly terrain areas and a 150-foot riparian corridor next to the creek that runs through his property. Most fields also have buffer strips on field borders. Fifteen of Fahrmeier’s acres are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, and he established food plots for wildlife and hunting.

These management approaches work well, Fahrmeier said. His corn yields have more than doubled over the past 30 years, and his soybean yields have nearly reached the same mark, all while using less fertilizers.

“I view everything as a total management package,” Fahrmeier said. “Everything works together. Changing my fertility program is part of a total management plan to increase yield. With precision planting, we do a better job of singulating seed. With zone management, we’re putting the right amount of fertilizer on for the high-yielding areas and low-yielding areas. We’ve increased our knowledge and management skills to go along with all these advances.

“Combine that with following the 4Rs, and we’re bound to make things better.”

Making medicine mobile

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

As the Veterinary Feed Directive neared its Jan. 1 implementation date, Dr. Cliff Miller began preparing for the extra time it would take to provide livestock producers with the forms they needed to obtain and use medicated feeds under the new federal law. 

The Moberly, Mo., veterinarian expected the VFD mandate to add to the workload and record-keeping at his Green Hills Veterinary Clinic. He was right. 

“It’s meant more paperwork, meetings and lots of discussion,” Miller said. “I realize we need judicious use of antibiotics, but this has also added a layer to our to-do list. The other day, I probably had 30 minutes of phone time tied up in one VFD, by the time I called the producer, then called the feed guy, then called the producer back, then called the feed guy again to figure out what we could use in this particular case. That’ll hopefully be a lot quicker once this learning curve gets better.”

Under the new rules, a valid VFD form is required before producers can purchase and administer livestock feeds with the newly regulated antibiotic additives, which were previously available “over the counter.” Only veterinarians can issue a VFD form, which must include such information as premises where the feed will be used; dates of VFD issuance and expiration; name of the antibiotic, dosage and duration of use; why the VFD is issued; species and production class of animals to receive the medication; cautions, withdrawals and special instructions; and more.

To help simplify this process for Miller and other veterinarians, MFA Incorporated has developed a new mobile app that puts electronic VFD forms at their fingertips. The VetForms app allows veterinarians to generate and submit VFD forms from mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets. It also includes an entire library of resources that veterinarians can use in providing other livestock services such as treatment records, pregnancy check forms, heifer pre-breeding evaluation and group processing information.

VetForms debuted in January, just as the new VFD rules went into effect. The app is available through the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association, which has a membership of 1,500 practicing veterinarians across the state. Users sign up for the program through the MVMA and pay a monthly or yearly subscription fee. That cost is all-inclusive no matter how many VFDs are issued.

“Our members have been anxious about the VFD and how they’re going to handle it, and that spawned interest in this app,” said Richard Antweiler, MVMA executive director. “The app is helpful and versatile for our veterinarians, and that fits with our organization’s mission to help them keep up to date on technology and deliver excellent health care.”

The partnership with MVMA was purposeful, said Tony Martin, MFA staff veterinarian and director of animal health. While MFA created the app and provides ongoing technical support, the veterinary association handles all the promotions and subscriptions.

“Veterinarians are independent and not associated with any one feed company,” Martin said, “so it made sense for this to be controlled through their own organization.”

“The credibility of having our association—a noncommercial entity—lending their name to this app in partnership with a very well-known professional company like MFA is pretty powerful,” Antweiler added. “It transcends what either of us could do on our own.”

The VetForms concept branched out from the construction of MFA’s PowerCalf app, a mobile data-management system designed to help beef producers realize the full value of their herd’s genetic potential. In creating the infrastructure for the PowerCalf program, developers realized there was a need for such technology among veterinarians as well.

“I see it as a gateway to a new world of veterinary medicine,” Antweiler said. “Mobile technology like this can improve productivity and efficiency, which helps keep costs under control.”

While other electronic VFD management programs are available, most of them are computer or web-based. The mobility, comprehensive content and utility of the VetForms app set it apart from other VFD technologies, said Martin, who provided the detailed data to populate the app based on a VFD training guide he’d put together for MFA locations and employees.

“There’s nothing else like this out there, not to this extent,” Martin said, adding that he also sees the VFD app as an educational tool.

“Because these medications did not require veterinary involvement until this new law, many producers and their vets don’t have a full grasp of the actual label claims,” Martin said. “So the VFD app can be used as a reference guide. The vet can make the choices and create the VFD on site without having to look up and learn about each individual product. It definitely speeds up the process.”

Miller, who has seen requests for VFDs ramp up with spring mineral season, said the app has certainly streamlined the process. Because VFD forms must also be maintained for at least two years, he said the electronic versions are also easier to keep on file. Each form has a unique submission ID, and once a form is submitted there is an option to send it via email or text as a PDF.

“It’s so much quicker and easier than literally having to fill out a piece of paper in my office,” he said. “The app allows me to be out on the farm and create a VFD chute-side, if I need to. Having something user-friendly like this at my fingertips is a big advantage.”

Will the digital divide ever end?

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Rural Americans would like to see an end to the “digital divide”—a phrase used to describe greater availability and higher speeds of internet access in cities compared to rural areas. The term surfaced with the advent of the world wide web in the 1990s, and it remains accurate today, 10 years after smartphones were introduced. However, a growing number of providers are delivering high-speed solutions to rural customers.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, broadband commonly refers to a high-speed internet connection that’s always on and faster than 25 megabits per second download and three Mbps upload. Wireless speeds vary, cable usually only serves towns, and faster options like DSL and fiber-to-the-home are rare in rural places. The most remote areas still depend on more expensive, less reliable satellite coverage.

Residents of Parsons, Kan., got lucky when Galen Manners moved back home. He worked in the cellular industry before returning to the family farm to grow wheat, corn and soybeans. Seventeen years ago, he launched Wave Wireless, and today the company provides wireless broadband internet to 2,500 customers via 22 radio transmitter sites.

“I couldn’t get broadband at my home, so I built my own small network,” Manners said. “My neighbor asked to join in, then my cousin, and it grew from there.”

Until Wave Wireless arrived on the scene, residents of Labette County could only access painfully slow dial-up internet service from landline phone companies.

“Before we got Wave Wireless, our internet service was terrible,” said Mark Gilpin, who raises cattle and row crops near Parsons. “Galen does a good job; his service is excellent.”

Gilpin, who subscribed to Wave Wireless about 12 years ago, uses the connection to check cattle and feed prices, search for bargains on Craigslist and read news on media sites. His wife, Rhonda, uses it to conduct research and communicate as part of her job teaching nursing at a nearby community college.

In addition to farmers, Wave Wireless serves small-town residents, schools and agribusinesses like Parsons AGChoice, an MFA Incorporated location where Manners and Gilpin purchase supplies. Along with his role as president of Wave Wireless, Manners continues to farm and uses broadband to download weather, market prices and other ag-related information.

“While the hilly terrain and lack of population make it difficult to provide broadband here, eastern Kansas is fairly well served by a number of small wireless providers,” said Manners, who heads up a team of eight Wave Wireless employees, including his wife, Sandy. “We don’t compete head-to-head with the big companies that focus on cities. Our primary goal is serving rural customers.”

The FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report found that “while the nation continues to make progress in fixed and wireless broadband deployment, many Americans still lack access to advanced, high-quality voice data, graphics and video offerings, especially in rural areas.”

With its small towns, hilly geography and water features, MFA country falls into the territory that is difficult to serve by internet providers. A study released in 2016 by the Strategic Networks Group and the Rural Telecommunications Congress found that Missouri ranks close to the bottom among all states in terms of its efforts to provide broadband access, and Arkansas rates only slightly better. Kansas lands a bit below average. Iowa scores 10th in the nation—the best among MFA states.

In April, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens announced $45 million in funds for a program that will enable every public school in the state to build the infrastructure for high-quality internet access. Newly appointed Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn said she is also placing priority on getting higher-speed internet into the state’s rural areas “so Missouri farmers and ranchers can fully utilize the technology at their fingertips.”

“Attracting the next generation back to the farm has been, and always will be, important to me,” said Chinn, a fifth-generation farmer from Clarence, Mo. “To do that, we must protect the integrity of agriculture and invest in rural communities. Better internet makes for better, more productive farms, schools and hospitals, and growth in rural communities equates to growth across the state.”

Broadband’s big boys such as AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Charter typically focus on urban areas such as St. Louis and Kansas City. That’s why Wave Wireless and hundreds of smaller, independent providers are needed to help fill the gap in rural America, where sparse populations fail to attract larger players.

Electric and telephone cooperatives have also entered the high-speed internet market, true to their grassroots mission of serving their members.

“Missouri is a hotbed of activity by electric co-ops extending fiber to the home,” said Rob West, executive vice president of rural infrastructure at CoBank, which provides more than $4 billion in loans to U.S. telecom systems and $10 billion to electric co-ops. “One of our customers, Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, has been a leader in showing that providing fiber to rural homes and businesses can succeed.”

Co-Mo shows you can deliver

Co-Mo Electric sets an example for others, West said, offering wholesale broadband service to United Electric Cooperative of Savannah Mo., Barry Electric Cooperative of Cassville, Mo., and other co-ops as far away as Virginia. And Co-Mo Electric succeeded without government assistance, which is used by many broadband providers to bring high-speed service to rural places.

In 2010, Co-Mo Electric Cooperative surveyed its 24,000 consumer-members and found pent-up demand for high-speed internet. While some had access through smartphone providers, the only other options were dial-up or satellite service. More than 300 letters of support came in from homes, businesses, schools and medical facilities. However, the co-op’s application for federal stimulus funding was denied.

“It was hard to tell our members that we weren’t going to offer broadband after all,” said Co-Mo Electric’s CEO, Ken Johnson. “We looked at wireless, but we serve rough terrain with hills and trees in central Missouri, and wireless isn’t the best solution. With fiber, we can serve everyone.”

Co-Mo’s member-elected board of directors approved a fiber-to-the-home pilot project in one of the cooperative’s most populated areas based on signing up a targeted percentage of customers.

“We took a page out of the playbook from when co-ops first brought electricity to rural America,” Johnson said. “We spread the word through meetings, newsletters, press releases and social media. As the deadline neared, we went door to door.”

At a meeting near Lake of the Ozarks, a local banker offered to pay the $100 sign-up fee for bank customers, Johnson said.

“Pandemonium broke out as people rushed to the registration table,” he said. “We signed up enough people to meet our goal.”

The pilot succeeded, and the board approved three more phases to connect the co-op’s electric consumers as well as 1,500 customers in nearby small towns, which “almost begged us to come,” Johnson said.

While a town might host 35 to 50 consumers per mile of line, Co-Mo Electric serves an average of just 7.8. Fiber-to-the-home is generally the most expensive way to deliver broadband, and tough terrain makes every mile more expensive. But the board remained committed.

“When kids go off to college, it’s hard to get them to come back without the quality of life that comes with broadband,” Johnson said.

Co-Mo Electric extended fiber to some of its substations to install remote control systems and assure electric reliability. The distribution co-op partnered with its wholesale provider, Central Electric Power Cooperative, to expand fiber’s reach.

“We have a total of 4,000 miles of distribution line, and we built 3,000 miles of fiber,” Johnson said. “By the end of 2016, our subsidiary, Co-Mo Connect, attracted 14,500 subscribers—mostly residences. Of those offered the service, half opted to take it, and we will continue to grow.”

CoBank and CFC, another cooperative that finances rural electric and telecom systems, provided $80 million in loans. Johnson said he expects the project to break even in seven or eight years.

“It took a lot of work, since no electric co-op had ever done this before,” he said. “We hit the market at the right time when interest rates were low.”

Johnson shares a couple of examples of how high-speed broadband has helped boost the local economy. Before Co-Mo Connect, a local gunstock manufacturer turned away business because he could only afford to activate his satellite connection to take orders for certain hours each day. With his fiber connection on 24 hours a day, he can now take more orders and business has grown.

In another case, a call center planned to move from Lake of the Ozarks to Kansas City, but Co-Mo Connect’s affordable broadband saved those 40 local jobs.

Telecom steps up

In addition to the electric co-ops, telecommunications companies continue to upgrade rural internet services.

“Progress is steadily being made to deploy rural broadband deeper into rural Missouri and increase broadband speeds,” said Ric Telthorst, president and CEO of the Missouri Tele-communications Industry Association, which represents three dozen small, community-based telecoms.

Telthorst cited NEMR Telecom, a co-op in northeast Missouri, as an example of a small cooperative delivering fiber-to-the-home. Jim Sherburne, CEO of NEMR Telecom in Green City, Mo., said that 88 percent of co-op members who have been offered fiber broadband have taken the service.

“We serve a very rural area where most farmers raise cattle, corn and soybeans,” Sherburne said. “A grant from the Universal Service Fund allowed us to offer high-speed broadband.” The fiber project is 75 percent complete and will wind down by 2020.

The Universal Service Fund is collected from U.S. telecommunications companies and offered through the Federal Communications Commission to support increased availability of telecommunications services throughout the country. Over the years, subsidies have been updated to support not only traditional voice telephone service but also high‑speed broadband. In addition to this funding, many providers benefit from other federal and state grant programs designed to bring high-speed service to rural places.

“Everyone thinks they deserve fiber to the home, but in reality it’s difficult to deliver high-speed everywhere fast,” West said. “It usually takes government funding.”

Telthorst listed other telcom association members that now or soon will provide high-speed broadband:

  • GRM Networks, a cooperative in northwest Missouri, recently upgraded service.
  • Granby Telephone Company, a family-owned business in southwest Missouri, is completing fiber-to-the-home.
  • CenturyLink plans to install 1,600 miles of fiber to serve more than 70,000 customers in 100 Missouri communities by year-end.
  • AT&T and Verizon are investing millions in making their networks more robust across the state, and AT&T is developing technology that would send broadband wirelessly along—not through—electric lines.

Kansas is also making progress in rural broadband access, said Colleen Jamison, executive manager of the State Independent Telephone Association of Kansas, adding that quality service requires a healthy backbone.

“A recent study showed that independent companies in Kansas spend an average of $98 million a year on capital improvements,” said Jamison, who represents 20 of the state’s 35 rural local exchange carriers. “The service can’t be adequate if towers aren’t numerous, and they often aren’t in rural areas with a population density of less than one person per square mile.”

Will rural America  always come last?

As internet service coverage continues to grow, soon CoBank’s West believes the question won’t be whether rural Americans have internet access but whether they have adequate access.

“When will we see 100 percent coverage at adequate speeds in all of America?” he asked. “Most people in rural America have access, but they want better, higher-speed access. None of the new technologies started in rural areas, and that trend will continue. Urban areas will receive 5G technology first, because that’s where the economics make sense.”

Data drives decisions on the farm 

High-speed broadband will become more crucial as farmers adopt precision farming practices that require more data, said Thad Becker, director of precision farming for MFA Incorporated. 

“The heart of MFA’s precision program is managing data that comes in from soil-sampling tests and variable-rate planting and fertilizing equipment,” Becker said. He estimates that 90 percent of farmers download this data from field equipment to a thumb drive, which is then inserted in a home computer. The farmer emails the information to MFA, and an agronomist emails back prescriptions for enhancing soil, seed and fertilizer practices.  

Each growing season, the average farmer transmits only 50 megabits each for planting and harvest and 20 for soil sampling, Becker added. Agronomy recommendations take even less memory. Any broadband mode can transfer these small amounts. 

Many farmers in MFA country use cell phones to collect information from the internet, and the majority can access 4G or other high-end cellular technologies, he said. 

“The problem is,” Becker added, “most cell providers limit the quantity of data you can upload each month.” 

Limited speeds and data limits present problems. On the MFA Nutri-Track web portal, farmers log in to a secure site to view planting and harvesting data and access precision fertilizer prescriptions. The technology works well with DSL, cable or fiber internet services but is limited over a cellular network.

“Depending on their service, a lot of growers who use cell phones to access Nutri-Track sometimes wait five minutes or more for a map to load,” Becker said. “As technology progresses, we’ll add more data, and in one or two years, farmers will bump up against data limits.”  

As the industry adopts more variable-rate technology and uses more photo and video imagery in managing crops, Becker believes farmers may require 10 to 15 times more data—or even greater. 

“The need for high-speed internet is going to keep growing as technology advances and farmers adopt more precision practices,” Becker said. “We’re seeing data drive decisions on the farm more and more every day.”

MFA network reveals the state of rural broadband 

MFA’s network of Agri Services and AGChoice locations often lie outside small towns and can’t access cable, DSL, fiber or other high-speed options, according to Eric Summers, telecom analyst for MFA Incorporated. For example, he said it took a couple years for fiber providers to get close enough to serve AGChoice in Emporia, Kan., and MFA Agri Services in Sedalia, Mo.

“Broadband providers want a return on investment, and if we’re only one of two or three customers along the highway, they can’t make a profit,” Summers said. “As a result, we use a mixed bag of broadband technology.” 

Most MFA locations use DSL, the most common, economical choice, Summers said, but he prefers fiber and cable connections for their reliability. Cellular service works, but users often experience delays when typing in data. While Summers said MFA avoids using satellite because of its high cost and poor reliability in bad weather, some locations in Missouri’s Bootheel depend on it.  The most underserved broadband areas are northeastern and southeastern Missouri, Summers explained.

Fortunately, fiber is becoming more available. CoMo Electric Cooperative in Tipton, Mo., recently delivered fiber in its area, and Summers quickly signed up MFA Agri Services there.  

Summers secures two broadband providers for every location as required by the software MFA uses; a backup assures reliability. 

“Even more than geography, aging communications infrastructure can be an obstacle to finding fast, reliable broadband,” he said. “Larger companies are updating their systems, but it is complex and costly to do so while avoiding service interruption. Smaller co-ops and telecoms tend to be younger and are in a better position to build the latest technology.”  


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