US infrastructure splurge extends to remote New Mexico farms

Apr 3, 2023, 2:59 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new $40 million round of grants to extend high-speed internet to extremely remote farms, homes and businesses in New Mexico, including counties where the population density is less than one person per square mile (2.5 square kilometers).

Joe Biden and top administration officials are traveling to more than 20 states this week to buttress the president’s message on investments and economic growth before an expected reelection campaign, amid a tug-of-war on federal budget priorities with House Republicans. Biden on Monday traveled to suburban Minneapolis on Monday to tour a clean energy technology manufacturer.

Democratic leaders in New Mexico welcomed his agriculture secretary Monday in Albuquerque for the announcement, and celebrated public spending on high-speed internet in remote New Mexico communities. Vilsack and members of the state’s congressional delegation say the funds will help farms find efficiencies through precision mapping of topography, nutrients and moisture. Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, said fast rural internet and array federal infrastructure spending will help those growers bring commodities to market and compete.

The grants to expand fiberoptic cable networks in New Mexico stem from the $1 billion infrastructure law signed by Biden in 2021, and the related “Reconnect” program that aims to fill in gaps where internet service is slow or nonexistent. The spending will help two rural telephone companies and a cooperative extend high-speed internet service to extremely remote ranch and farm lands, in counties such as Catron, Harding and DeBaca that have fewer than one person per square mile (2.5 square kilometers) on average.

“When you look at the number of farms and ranches and businesses and homes that are covered, it’s not huge. And someone said, ‘Is that a wise investment of our federal dollars?’” said U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, who represents a sprawling rural district that traverses northern and eastern New Mexico. “And I said absolutely. Absolutely because you need the connectivity no matter what your zip code is.”

As fiberoptic cables are extended, some households will be eligible for subsidies that can ensure high-speed access for as little as $30 a month, Leger Fernandez said.

A $14 million grant to the Peñasco Valley Telephone Cooperative is designed to extend high-speed internet to 550 people, including 48 farms in Chaves, Eddy, Otero and Lincoln counties. The goal is to help small and medium-sized farms attain the same profitability as large food producers.

“Those 48 farms now have the opportunity to take full advantage of this new transformational future we are building,” Vilsack said. “Those 550 people count as much as any people living in New York City or Los Angeles or Denver or any major community in this country.”

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US infrastructure splurge extends to remote New Mexico farms