Broadband Can't Save Us, Off-Farm Jobs Can

March 2, 2018 10:55 AM

Don’t misunderstand my headline. I think high-speed internet is great. Unfortunately, the laws of physics and economics will make it an extravagant luxury for the last few percent of Americans. Many of us are farmers.

There is a Five Mile Rule: five miles from fiber optic (FO) cable is the practical extent of high-speed service. It’s realistically impossible to string FO to farms like mine. As for mobile, the build-out for towers will never exceed cell coverage. If you drop calls now, decent broadband from a telecom company is unlikely.

Being able to stream football and basketball games won’t make startups blossom amid Midwestern cornfields. Tech hot spots require synergy between different companies and talents. They also require housing, recreation, logistics and academia.

Broadband will lift the quality of rural lives significantly. But it is often the kiss of death for local retail and journalism, to name just two industries that suffer disruption by smartphone. Notice the biggest boosters of rural broadband are often those who want improved access to farmer data. While broadband can make spending more effective, it offers fewer opportunities to make money.

It’s About Income. Recently on my Twitter timeline, a farmer tweet popped up asking for ideas to boost his income $30,000 this year. He ruled out a “job in town.” The responses were interesting and familiar.

All that I read were ag related: custom work for neighbors, ag sales, niche livestock, ag tourism, etc. None were surprising, especially for those of us who remember the ’80s. We watched people invest in ostriches. I started a business selling computers to farmers. All these ideas could help. Almost none did back then, and for the same reason I don’t think similar ventures will now: it is extremely hard to extract income from a sector in recession.

Our ag-only employment blinders fool us another way. Farmers facing income shortages should look hard at all enterprises. In my opinion, many small cow herds, especially purebred, are used either to justify a year-round employee or rule out outside employment. If it hasn’t added to the farm bottom line for three years or more, it’s a hobby—maybe an expensive one.

The stark divide between the economic activity in rural and urban America has come under intense scrutiny. Rural America isn’t just missing out on the growth, it’s losing ground by many measures.

Follow The Money. Ruling out a job in “town” might not be a bad decision. What farmers should be considering is following the bank robber rule: go where the money is. Cities with voracious labor markets, not towns, are the places to look for income. Dormant skills and degrees are assets, and with the huge improvement in tools like job-search websites, finding part-time or seasonal employment is not just feasible, but more lucrative than you might expect. As economists point out, labor immobility is a huge constraint on growing our economy. People don’t move to jobs like we used to. That alone suggests a significant return for those who will.

In tough times, I have seen neighbors embrace realism and families manage with a father only home on weekends, or a few days a month. Farmers often forget that is just how life is for sales people, truckers and military families. For that matter, it’s similar to how many of our ancestors immigrated. It can be done, and done well.

A Win-Win. During the last severe farm income decline, surviving farms were sustained by off-farm income. The old adage of “eds, meds and feds” as reliable income sources is apt.

Our disdain for non-farmers inhibits our appreciation of non-farm work as equally meaningful. Even reluctant employment off-farm can greatly improve not just farm survival odds, but also our understanding of the urban dwellers. 


John Phipps is a sixth-generation farmer from Chrisman, Ill., and former nuclear engineer. He is the on-farm “U.S. Farm Report” commentator and writes a column for Farm Journal.

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Spell Check

Craigville, IN
3/21/2018 07:26 AM

  Sorry, John. We're not interested in a cold slap of reality in the face. We'd just rather do what we want to do, and then complain when it doesn't work. Doing whatever it takes to get the job done is (sadly) no longer the American way.

Roger Schlitter
Mason City, IA
3/4/2018 05:01 PM

  I know two farmers that went to the Twin Cities to do house remodeling work in the winter back in the late '80's and early '90's to make extra income. Now, about 30 years later, they are not worried about having to do it to survive this downturn. One of the most successful farmers I worked with in the "80's and '90's told me how he drove a mail truck every night for several years when he was starting out. Not much fun, but it helped him get ahead when he was young.


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