Extension Teaching Digital Literacy on the Farm

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The importance of high-speed internet was highlighted during the most restrictive days of the pandemic. We were able to conduct business via video calls, stay connected to family and friends, order necessary items online and maintain a modicum of sanity by binge-watching favorite shows on streaming services.

Broadband access has become a necessity in today’s world, but there are areas of North Carolina that can’t tap into this important tool. At the end of 2021, nearly 1.1 million households lacked access to high-speed internet, according to the N.C. Department of Information Technology.

“Do you care about the environment? Do you care about the food you eat or the clothes you wear? Because connectivity and technology on the farm impacts your everyday life in more ways than you might think,” said Jason Ward, NC State Extension specialist in agricultural engineering. “If we don’t have good connectivity, people in our rural communities, who have great insight and innovation to share, may not have the ability to deliver solutions in a meaningful way.”

Federal and state grants are helping to add infrastructure and bring the number down, but that’s only part of the solution in closing the digital divide.

“The other part is we need a toolkit for digital literacy and skills,” said Extension Director for Randolph County Kenny Sherin. “You can get the connectivity, but if you don’t know how to use it it’s not going to do any good. Farmers, ranchers, they’re going to need to learn new digital skills to use the technology being deployed all around them.”

In March 2021, Sherin became Extension’s first Broadband Access and Education Coordinator, a position added primarily to help farmers bridge the digital divide, innovate the food supply and efficiently get their goods to the people of North Carolina.

Digital literacy means lessons in productivity tools such as accounting software, spreadsheets, online banking, photo editing, email marketing, website building and even advanced skills like coding and cybersecurity. It also includes exciting, cutting-edge technology such as moisture meters in grain storage facilities and using data from drones to monitor crops.

Early efforts in digital literacy included a webpage outlining broadband resources by Extension programming area; training sessions conducted during the annual Extension conference and state association meetings; speaking engagements to multiple groups about the importance of and opportunities with broadband; and helping create the N.C. Agriculture Digital Alliance, a collaborative effort to learn, share and support digital inclusion and equity among the agricultural community.

“Farmers are some of the most creative and innovative people,” Sherin said. “They are going to be able to use this resource to make their product better to improve the quality of their farm.”

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