Proposal seeks to accelerate precision agriculture

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee heard testimony Feb. 15 on a bill intended to advance precision agriculture in Nebraska through enhanced internet access.

Sen. Myron Dorn
Sen. Myron Dorn

LB761, introduced by Adams Sen. Myron Dorn, states legislative intent to appropriate $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act pandemic relief funds in fiscal year 2022-23 to incentivize broadband providers and agricultural producers to adopt precision agriculture strategies. Precision agriculture is a farm management approach that uses technology to analyze data to improve production while also preserving resources.

The state Department of Economic Development would administer the grant program. Half of the funds would be allocated to broadband providers and the remaining half to agriculture providers and producers.

Under the bill, a broadband provider could apply for a grant to provide symmetrical download and upload speeds of at least 50/50 Mbps to farm structures and devices. A provider would be required to complete their project within 12 months and would be subject to speed tests.

An agricultural cooperative, agronomist or agricultural producer also could apply for funds for the development of soil health and water management products and the implementation of on-farm traceability solutions and autonomous agricultural machinery.

Dorn said Nebraska always has been a leader in agricultural research, practices and products, however, the state is at risk of losing its status as the industry changes globally due to consumer demands and changing perceptions of how food is grown.

“If we maintain the status quo and don’t adapt to these changes, we will be a stepping stone for other states, businesses and universities to lead the conversation and dictate to us how the industry will develop,” Dorn said. “LB761 is a nudge in the right direction for Nebraska to continue its domination in the agriculture industry.”

Julie Bushell, president of Page Wireless, testified in support of LB761. The foundation outlined in the bill is a way to accelerate precision agriculture and would put power back in the hands of Nebraska producers, Bushell said.

“[Stakeholders] have made clear that they favor data-backed verified information [and] are willing to pay a premium for products that are grown in a sustainable and humane way,” she said. “Here in Nebraska, that is what we do, but without sufficient producer-owned data to back that assertion, our ag products may lose market share and take a backseat to those that can substantiate their farming practices.”

Also in support of the bill was Brandon Hunnicutt who testified on behalf of the Ag Leaders Working Group — which represents eight Nebraska agricultural associations. Public and private industries continuously innovate products, sensors and management tools for farmers and ranchers, Hunnitcutt said, but these innovations come at a cost. LB761 would promote use of those innovations through grant funding, which would increase efficiency while also reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint, he said.

Tip O’Neill, president of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association, spoke in opposition to the bill. He said the measure would create a different standard of adequate broadband speed to qualify for grants than the standard adopted in the Broadband Bridge Act passed by the Legislature last session.

“We also believe the PSC, not the Department of Economic Development, should be the governmental entity that administers any broadband grant created for the utilization of federal ARPA funds,” O’Neill said.

The committee took no immediate action on LB761.

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