Community engagement case study: Farming

Farming is a way of the North Yorkshire Dales life – 2,683 people were directly employed in the rural land-based sector in 2017 (Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority). The industry has developed over the past 50 years and now digitalisation is an integral part of modern agriculture (Cambridge Press. 2020).

Yet, parts of the Dales has limited connectivity. This affects the development and day-to-day running of such an important rural business, employer and vital part of rural society. Tim Brown and his family are in such a position – based in Agglethorpe in Coverdale – they own three holdings, which are about five miles apart.

‘The farm home has about 20% reception’ says Tim ‘I know where to stand to get reception but calls can just drop off, which is frustrating’. The top farm, based near Horsehouse, has only 1% reception and the low farm has fantastic reception. ‘It’s frustrating that it is so inconsistent’.

Tim, his father and son, Edward who has just finished at Newton Rigg College near Penrith, and has ambitions to take over, works the farm. ‘There are loads of things we could do and Edward has many ideas but, at the minute, we cannot even do the basics’ says Tim.

He continues ‘simple things like being able to update records whilst out; but because we do not have mobile connections we cannot. Cattle have to be registered within fourteen days of their birth. Tim could take the information home and use the broadband to upload, yet, the family broadband has been known to go down for weeks at a time due to being reliant on old copper wires, which is affected by the weather. This means that Tim has to resort to using paper because ‘if we move it online and then the broadband goes down, we will have to revert back and that’s when mistakes happen’ Tim says.

5G would allow the family to scan tags using their phones and update records of pedigree animals instantaneously. It, also, could offer new opportunities ensuring the farm works more efficiently.

Even the things that most people take for granted are difficult. ‘We don’t do online banking because of the connection’ says Sarah, Tim’s partner who works part time as well as helping on the farm. ‘We can’t rely on it – whether that is payments going through or invoices being sent’. The family are often left checking transactions have taken place.

Digital connectivity is supposed to take away these worries – supporting a business and family – not cause more stress.

However, in areas such as Coverdale, this is not the case.

Tim, other farmers and businesses are working twice as hard to keep up with the rest of the country. ‘Big businesses aren’t interested in us. There are only four houses up our area – so for the larger companies – it is not cost effective’ says Tim. Yet, the family still have to pay the same amount as those who have reliable broadband and mobile connections – some of which are just a few miles away – ‘we’re paying a premium but not getting the service; putting simply it’s not fair’.

Moreover, this is happening in a business, which the Health and Safety Executive, in 2019/20, said was an accident-prone industry.

Many farmers, including Tim, are totally alone whilst working and having no mobile signal enhances this. ‘I can’t get hold of him when he is out’ Sarah states. ‘I often don’t know where he is and when you farm you have to work late’. Tim’s dad, at 75, still works on the farm. ‘His wife worries’ says Sarah; ‘more so now then she used to’. If something happens, we don’t have the luxury of that protection’. Tim agrees. ‘If you have no mobile phone coverage and there is an emergency there is nothing you can do about it when you’re out of signal’.

Digital connectivity is something, which everyone should be able to rely on. For farmers who work long hours, this may include being able to call home but, for young farmers, keeping in touch with their friends is integral. Sarah says ‘Edward – who is 19 – uses platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat to keep in touch, yet, when he is here he can’t’.

Keeping in touch supports the mental health of individuals. It cannot be right that farmers are left isolated because their livelihood – an integral sector – is in rural communities.

5G offers the basics but it, also, allows businesses to develop.

Tim says ‘we want to put cameras in the calving sheds’. This would give the family the opportunity to see in real time what is happening – during an integral part of their year, for security of their livestock but, also, so just knowing where people are. Currently, to achieve this the family would have to lay hardwire. Yet, 5G would offer wireless connections – something which the MANY project is keen to use to enable digital connectivity into the area. A cost effective solution, which has the potential to be scaled up for other areas and benefit the communities, which have consistently missed out.

Supporting a business is one aspect a 5G connection can do. It also aids domestic life.

A few weeks ago, the electricity company came to fit a SMART metre at the farm.  A SMART metre is known as an energy and cost saving solution. However, in order for it to work, a reliable connection is required and that is one thing this family do not have. As Tim says ‘it is pretty useless’. 5G would allow this to work in a way, which is right for the family using intelligent connections via the Internet of Things, but, also, open up other opportunities.

Nevertheless, as it stands, with limited connectivity a SMART metre is near useless, as is many other innovations, which the rest of the country benefit from because of the lack of investment made to the digital infrastructure in the area. Yet, the family’s requirements for their broadband are not over and above any other working family.

Since the Covid pandemic – like most – Sarah works from home. This means logging onto remote systems and attending virtual meetings. When the broadband is reliable, it has been an easy switch to make. Sarah’s is not.

‘My broadband crashes, I have been kicked out of meetings on numerous occasions and I have just given up – it is stressful, frustrating and unprofessional and, also, a lot of time is wasted’.

Sarah reflects ‘it is lucky that our son has been able to continue at school because our connections wouldn’t have coped (with remote learning). We know families who have poor broadband who are now classed as vulnerable so their children can get a place in school’.

For rural families, a 5G connection can offer an integrated reliable and robust connection – both in and outside the home.

‘Young people tend to move away from Coverdale at working age but they are keen to move back when they are ready to start a family’ Sarah says, continuing ‘it’s idyllic – a chocolate box place to live but it doesn’t offer what families want’.

Which (2020)  states that asking about mobile phone coverage and broadband is an integral question to ask when looking to move house. The North Yorkshire Rural Commission (2020) further stated that digital connectivity should be a ‘basic human right’. ‘Families will not move here’ Sarah says, ‘partly due to the house prices but, also, because the area does not give them the basics. We’re already seeing it – I don’t think there are any under 9 year olds live here and our local school has had to link to another because of lack of numbers attending’ Sarah adds.

However, put in the basic requirements, giving people what they want. ‘It will bring people to the area; making the place thrive. Ensuring its future’ Sarah concludes.

What’s your experience of connectivity in the North end of Coverdale? Tell us. Call us on 0300 400 4444 or email us