To expand our rural economy, Maine needs to make public investments in broadband.

What do you do when you live and run a business at or beyond the proverbial “last mile” for broadband?  That is the question that Wood Prairie Farms in Bridgewater has been tossing around for the past several years.  Now, they have a solution.  Crowdfunding.

After forty years on the farm, Maine’s organic farming pioneers, Jim & Megan Gerritsen, are handing down Wood Prairie Family Farm to their children.  Now, in an effort led by their son Caleb, their children in turn have created a new Barnraiser Crowdfunding Campaign in order to help with the farm transition.

“Keep This Organic Legacy Growing – Wood Prairie Family Farm” is the title of their new crowdfunding campaign posted on the popular farm and food-centric Barnraiser site.

“We need help to make transitioning of the farm successful,” said Caleb Gerritsen.  “For example, our organic seed business website needs to be made mobile-friendly, we need a reliable high-speed-internet connection, and older farm buildings and equipment need rebuilding.”

Starting out with a mail order catalog almost thirty years ago, Wood Prairie Family Farm has been growing and direct-marketing high quality Certified Organic seed and food to customers in all fifty states.  A web store was added fifteen years ago.  The internet has steadily grown and the majority of orders now come over the web.

Over the past four decades, the Gerritsen family has been active, volunteering many thousands of hours on behalf of the organic community by performing organizational, advocacy and educational work.  Jim is a founder and long-time President of the national membership trade group, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association. He is an active part of a network of farmers that use the internet to provide education, assistance and information to other farmers across the country.  Without a quality high speed connection, that work is a whole lot harder.

“I can vouch for the fact that the lack of high speed internet service on our farm is hurting our rural business,” said Jim Gerritsen, founder of Wood Prairie Family Farm.  “Last week we hosted another community webinar in our series about growing organic potatoes.  Afterwards, it took nine hours to upload the webinar video to You Tube.  Earlier in the week, it took Caleb five hours to upload his short video to Barnraiser.  Good broadband service would have allowed these jobs to be completed in a matter of minutes.  Our deficient internet service would cripple any business.”

This effort tells us two important things.  For businesses across the state – whether you are a farmer, bed and breakfast, manufacturer, or artisan – reliable, affordable high speed broadband is essential to your business in today’s economy.  As such, access to that resource should be part of your business plan, including your capital expenses.

Wood Prairie is lucky – the cost of connecting to high speed service is expensive, but not unattainable.  They are using a Barnraisers to fill that gap.  For many businesses, the “last mile” is a lot further than a mile or three, and the cost is prohibitive.  That is where Maine businesses need help – from the federal government, and from state and local government.  Making sure our small businesses across the state can hook up to the world market and all the things reliable high speed broadband can provide is an essential part of how we really grow Maine’s economy.

Subsidizing broadband access is not really different than other incentives Maine State Government provides to businesses who seek to locate, grow and add jobs here.  Many of Maine’s tax incentives are designed to fill a financing gap that a company cannot fill on its own.  Just like Maine helps companies locate here, we should be helping connect businesses that are already by subsidizing access to reliable, high speed broadband.

Jim Gerritsen is part of a group of famers across Maine working with Maine Farm Bureau to pass LD 826 in the Maine Legislature.  LD 826 seeks to extend the fee all Mainers pay on their phone and broadband connections to mobile phone and broadband users.  Those funds could then help bring high speed internet access to the many parts of Maine that either have no access or have really bad access.  Maine Broadband Coalition is also working with Maine Municipal Association and others to urge the passage of a bond that would help towns expand broadband infrastructure across the state.

There are many solutions to solving Maine’s “last mile” internet hole.  In a very true sense it is more like silver buckshot over a silver bullet.  Wood Prairie Farms is working to solve their lack of access, but their solution will not work for many others.  Public subsidy, similar to the tax incentives Maine provides to other businesses, can help fund what the private sector cannot fund.  This is a critical step that the Maine legislature can take this year to make sure that rural Maine is not left behind the very real digital divide.