When people think of the United States Department of Agriculture, they of course think about things related to agriculture - farms, crops, livestock.
But Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the USDA is about much more than that. It’s really about improving the quality of life in rural areas.
“It's important I think because of the people who live in rural America and the contributions they make to the rest of the country," Vilsack said.
Vilsack said rural America is the country’s primary domestic source of food and energy. It's also where a disproportionate number of our military come from.
“Rural America is only 15 percent of America's population, but close to 40 percent of America's military come from those small towns," Vilsack said. "It's important that if that value system of service to country is to continue, we obviously have to have quality homes and quality of life in small communities.”
So there is a lot that the USDA can do for rural communities that doesn’t have anything to do with food. Most recently they’ve been working to bring small towns something most people wouldn’t dream of living without: the Internet.
It’s hard to believe, but the USDA has invested almost 200 million dollars into bringing the internet to many of the country’s smaller communities. The investment has huge implications for rural healthcare.
“If you're a doctor, a healthcare provider in a small community and you want to access expert help and assistance for a patient you have and you want to use telemedicine, you're going to have to have broadband capacity,” Vilsack said.
One hospital that has benefited from improved broadband service is Citizens Memorial Hospital in Bolivar, Missouri. Since the mid-90’s Citizens Memorial has received five rural development grants from the USDA for their telehealth program. They’ve invested that money into securing a tele-pharmacist for a rural nursing home and hosting video consultations with specialists from Citizen’s Memorial for a critical access hospital in their region.
“We're a fairly large rural hospital, but we still would no way had the resources to invest in things that were in a way really new and unproven without their assistance,” said Denni McColm, Chief Information Officer for Citizens Memorial.
She said the hospital’s next goal is to use their telehealth program to serve Osceola, Mo., a town about 40 miles away.
“[Osceola] has one of these grants that we’re going to help them complete it so that we can have continued services, telehealth, for that region and really augment the services that we're going to be able to provide in that community,” McColm said.
Hospitals aren’t the only ones benefiting from improved broadband services. Aside from rural teens checking Facebook, farmers need the internet to get up-to-date crop information, rural businesses need it for better marketing, and educators can use the web to offer more classes when they can’t hire more teachers.
Vilsack said without better internet access, rural communities are going to continue to fall behind.
“Many aspects of life are impacted and affected by 21 century infrastructure," Vilsack said. "If you don't have it, it's going to make it a little bit harder for those folks in those communities to be able to prosper.”