The countryside is in trouble. You know it. I know it. The United Nations says so. The share of the worldâ€™s population living in the countryside is shrinking as megacities grow. Opportunities for education and employment are shrinking with it, forcing bright kids to leave town to pursue their ambitions. The tax base erode, schools consolidate, services falter and stores close.
Thereâ€™s just one problem with this picture. As George Gershwin so famously put it, â€œIt ainâ€™t necessarily so.â€
There are places in the countryside giving birth to a new economic model. I was in one last week â€“ and there I exactly saw how information and communications technology (ICT), plus a dose of vision, ambition and hard work, can get the countryside growing again.
Eersel, Netherlands, is a rural city of 18,000. "City" may be a bit misleading, since it actually consists of six rural villages that share a municipal government. Like many rural places, it is spacious and beautiful, and its biggest industries are agriculture and tourism. But that is about where the resemblance to everyplace else ends.
A Dutch broadband pioneer, Kees Rovers, has led the city in rolling out fiber to the premise to fill the gaps left by private-sector telcos and cable companies. The capital comes from government grants, but property owners contribute as well to the costs of the last mile, and strong take-up produces positive cash flow. Through this effort, Eersel has already reached 97% coverage at fiber speeds, and they are now working on in-fill of the last (and most expensive) 3%. At age 70, Kees is a serial broadband champion, having led the unique fiber network deployment in Nuenen, Netherlands that contributed to Eindhovenâ€™s selection as the 2011 Intelligent Community of the Year.
That connectivity is being put to good use. On the farm of Jacob van der Borne, you can see something called â€œprecision farmingâ€ at its most advanced. Jacob and his brother have assembled it all from scratch, combining imagery from satellites and drones (they run a small fleet of them) with hands-on soil testing and obsessive measurement how much they harvest. The result is an incredibly detailed digital map of the land they farm, with the potential yield of each square meter carefully plotted. (See his entertaining video on YouTube.)
The map, in turn, is used to guide planting, irrigating and spraying machines with the goal of giving each square meter exactly what it requires. If the soil is relatively poor, plants are spaced farther apart. In rich soils, they are bunched closer. Irrigation, fertilizers and chemicals are applied in the smallest possible amounts only where conditions justify it.
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