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FCC Chairman Gets a Taste of California’s Digital Divide

Photo credit: Douglas Taylor

In a quest to understand what the Digital Divide looks like from the vantage point of America’s farmers and rural residents, Federal Communications Chairman, Ajit Pai, spent time on the ground last week in the Sacramento region.

Hosted by Valley Vision and the Sacramento Metro Chamber, the Chairman visited agricultural sites in Yolo County and heard first-hand from farmers, business and community leaders about the Divide, literally 10 miles away (as the crow flies) from the state capitol of California – the fifth largest economy in the world. The tour of the region’s rich agricultural areas kicked off Monday morning at the Muller Ranch just outside of the City of Woodland. A group of about 20 regional, state and federal broadband experts and local business and community leaders was graciously hosted by ranch owner Frank Muller. Frank also serves as Chairman of the Board of Pacific Coast Producers and is a Member of the California State Food and Agriculture Board. In addition, his ranch serves as a site for Valley Vision’s Yolo County agricultural technology (AgTech) pilot funded by the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) and in partnership with California State University, Chico.

Frank welcomed the group and gave an overview of ranch operations, his role on State Ag Board and his work with Pacific Coast Producers. Muller Ranch grows diversified crops such as tomatoes, almonds, walnuts, grapes and vegetables on 10,000 acres in several different fields. Chairman Pai, dressed for a day in the fields in jeans and a hoodie, listened intently and engaged in the discussion as members of the group shared their individual stories. Frank gave examples of the impacts of the lack of high-speed internet, or broadband, from two perspectives. From the business side, the lack of broadband coverage in his fields inhibits the use of AgTech that can help farmers manage operations for increased resource efficiency and productivity.

Frank Muller and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (Photo credit: Douglas Taylor)

Frank held up two pieces of equipment designed for the purpose of measuring water in the soil. The first, the reliable old tool that pulls a sample of soil that is analyzed for moisture by eye and touch. The second, a rod inserted into the ground with sensors on top that capture measurements for soil moisture and nitrogen level, which along with other data points, are uploaded to ‘the cloud’ for analysis and ability to apply accurate, real-time, prescriptive treatments. The return on investment of such technology is estimated to be 18-19 percent, according to Sunne Wright McPeak, President & CEO of CETF.

Frank described how this type of predictive analysis is the future of farming. The challenge for Frank, however, is access to a reliable broadband signal capable of uploading the information in real-time. Susan Strachan of CSU Chico’s Geographical Information Center, (which conducts broadband mapping for the California Public Utilities Commission), shared an overview of the Yolo County on-farm mobile broadband mapping project of 155 farms that she conducted for the AgTech Pilot and the results of tests on Muller Ranch. This granular mapping of coverage highlights where signals are clearly lacking as compared to higher level coverage maps. These types of tests and mapping help make broadband coverage and availability mapping much more accurate. This is vital for several reasons, including that eligibility for federal and state funding is based on the mapping data. This is the first project of its kind in the country. The Chairman also experienced first-hand the lack of cell phone coverage in Frank’s conference room, underscoring the disadvantage that ag businesses experience on a daily basis.

The second perspective Frank shared with the Chairman related to personal impacts of the lack of broadband. At his grandson’s home, a family with three school-age children who live a half-mile away, only one person at a time can effectively use the Internet at home. Fortunately, for his grandson, he has only to travel a half-mile away to his grandpa’s place to get online and get his homework done. But Frank and many others in community are concerned about those who aren’t quite as fortunate. The impact of the Digital Divide is felt heavily by those without reliable, high-speed internet access at home. How far will this Divide leave them behind in today’s digital economy?

The FCC Chairman visited the AgStart incubator in Woodland (Photo credit: Douglas Taylor)

The group then took a quick drive into the City of Woodland to visit AgStart, an innovative AgTech incubator where the group was welcomed by John Selep, President of AgStart; Leanna Sweha, Program Manager, AgStart; and Ken Hiatt, Assistant City Manager, City of Woodland. John provided an overview of the incubator, the programs, and participation in the VINE (Verde Innovation Network, funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration i-6 Innovation grant), a partnership with the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources. The incubator helps local entrepreneurs grow and thrive in the food and agricultural space; these entrepreneurs provided the ag technologies used for the AgTech Pilot. The potential of innovative AgTech to improve the efficiency and productivity of the food system is exciting and seemingly unlimited. However, even in a state considered a power-house of technology, the lack of adequate broadband coverage, with adequate download and upload speeds to meet today’s business needs – let alone tomorrow’s – is a major barrier. This connectivity is essential not only on-farm but in town. Ken noted that Woodland is home to more than 100 food and ag companies, including processors and R&D – a vital part of the regional economy. Yet an updated map showing broadband grades across region, based on speed, number of providers, cost, and reliability of service, among other factors, had dismal showings for Yolo County.

David Ogilvie leading a tour of Wilson Vineyards in Clarksburg (Photo credit: Douglas Taylor)

The final stop for Chairman Pai was Wilson Vineyards in Clarksburg. There, the group was greeted by David Ogilvie, Vineyard Manager, Wilson Vineyards, Director of Production, Muddy Boot Wine and Silt Wine Co. David’s fields are also a site for the AgTech Pilot. David provided a tour of the vineyards and described a new project with soil moisture probes and solar panels.  Similar to Muller Ranch, Wilson Vineyards is also challenged with access to broadband coverage capable of supporting his ambitions for advancing efficiencies through AgTech which are providing a 10-15% improvement. Some of the fields also lack cell phone coverage, stalling real time decision making and management. These challenges have spurred David’s involvement helping to solve the issue. For several years running, and in addition to serving the demands of farming and family, David has been an active leader of the Metro Chamber’s Cap-to-Cap federal advocacy program’s Food & Agriculture Committee. The meetings the Food & Ag team leaders held with the FCC while in Washington DC over the past two years, and the innovative AgTech Pilot, were the catalysts for the Chairman’s visit to Yolo County.

The evening before the field tours, the Chairman participated in a small roundtable discussion with local broadband, food and ag and rural development leaders. The evening included a signature Farm to Fork dining experience at Mulvaney’s B&L. Special thanks to broadband champions Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, and California State Food and Agriculture and California Broadband Councilmember Joy Sterling, for their dedicated commitment to making sure all Californians have true connectivity.

Chairman Pai said he was very impressed by the level of collaboration and partnership shown at each stop along the visit, showcasing the special connectedness of our region across all aspects of the food and ag economy and the community. Valley Vision and the Metro Chamber, in partnership with the FCC, and all the leaders who joined in hosting the FCC Chairman and telling our story, look forward to delivering on our shared mission to close the Digital Divide. Valley Vision manages the CPUC-funded Connected Capital Broadband Consortium. Materials on the AgTech Pilot project, broadband mapping and grades by county and community, and the Yolo County on-farm mapping project can be found on Valley Vision’s website.

Trish Kelly, is Managing Director at Valley Vision working on Food & Ag, the 21st Century Workforce and Broadband Access and Adoption.

Crossing Continents to Address Food Insecurity

It’s not every day that you get to discuss food security with a delegation of experts from across the world, but on Monday, March 25th, we did.

Valley Vision staff members Adrian Rehn, Emma Koefoed and Chloe Pan (myself) had the honor of hosting a group of food system experts from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and 12 other countries as part of a visit organized by the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program in partnership with the Northern California World Trade Center. A cross-section of leaders from the science, education, NGO, and government realms from nations such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Thailand came to our Oak Park office to hear about how the Sacramento region is collaborating to address food insecurity and nutrition.

We were at first hesitant about how to frame this discussion. We were going to sit down with people whose countries have not only been struggling with the effects of natural disaster on food security in real time, but it’s become a fact of life for more than half of their total population for months and even years afterwards. Imagine: hundreds of thousands of people without food or water and the destruction of roads and bridges impeding emergency response. Cyclone Idai ripped through Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi in mid-March, and while these residents were gathering together to make sense of this disaster amid the rubble of their former lives, Ms. Claudia Amelia Nunes Lopes and Ms. Prisca Nyagweta found themselves walking into our office to discuss food insecurity.

Project Manager Adrian Rehn briefs the delegation on Valley Vision’s work

Ms. Lopes is the Director of Policy and Planning at the Technical Secretariat for Food and Nutrition Security in Mozambique (SETSAN). 80% of the country’s 28 million citizens cannot afford an adequate diet and as a result, 43% of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years are affected by chronic malnutrition. The effects of this are aggravated by limited hygienic conditions and the lack of access to health services and potable water. Ms. Nyagweta is the Projects Coordinator and Area Manager at Linkages for the Economic Advancement of the Disadvantaged (LEAD), a nongovernmental organization whose mission is to build the dignity of disadvantaged communities in Zimbabwe through economic empowerment initiatives. 63% of their 15.6 million population live below the poverty line and 27% of children have stunted growth because of malnutrition.

With this in mind, we organized a panel of our regional nonprofit partners in the food space to share information on our ongoing work and the challenges we face here in the greater Sacramento area. Brenda Ruiz from the Sacramento Food Policy Council, Karen Strach from the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, Davida Douglas from Alchemist Community Development Corporation, Shannon Hardwicke from Soil Born Farms, and Jaime Wilson from the Food Literacy Center each gave presentations to the international delegation about their work and role in advancing food access and equity.

Jaime Wilson explaining the Food Literacy Center’s nutrition education work

According to the Sacramento Food Bank, 1 in 6 residents of Sacramento County are food insecure and few of them eat balanced meals, which directly impact these residents’ health statuses. We learned that unlike our visiting countries, our region does not have as much of a food deficit, but rather has difficulties with effective food distribution. To combat these barriers to food access, our local experts were able to discuss how all of our organizations’ missions are intertwined to provide healthy food and educate our communities on local food production, beginning in early education. Their immediate reaction was surprise at how well our region collaborated to elevate this work, but also the fact that a country as wealthy as the United States still had populations that struggled with food access like their own nations. Although the frameworks in which we view our comparative food security vary greatly, this was a unique opportunity to discuss our shared dedication to work that matters.  

This visit made me even more grateful for our amazing network of partners in this region, collaborating to make sure that this basic right to food is provided to our residents. From hands-on agricultural education to farm-fresh food distribution at local elementary schools and all the way to our policy-makers at the Capitol, we have passionate leaders that are championing our communities’ access to healthy food. Our food and ag economy makes up a large part of our regional identity and as proud as we are to have title of the Farm-to-Fork Capital, we know that we still have work to do to help everyone feel this privilege, as well. 

If you’d like to learn more about Valley Vision’s work in the food and agriculture economy, please visit our website. Further, reach out to Emma Koefoed if you’d like to partner with us on our ongoing 2019 Farm-to-Fork Live Speaker Series!

Chloe Pan was Valley Vision’s Executive Assistant to CEO Bill Mueller and Project Lead for the EPIC Trail.