Mike Randle, Editor

Rural South Broadband Initiatives Remind Me of the Old "Farm to Market" Strategy

Right after World War II, elected officials throughout the region spread the grand news from state to state and market to market about a new development idea. The idea was called "farm to market."

From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Southern governments both large and small implemented this "farm to market" strategy as quickly as it could be built and paid for. It helped farmers get their products to market quicker by improving rural roads to at least a point where they were passable for much of the year. If you're from the South, especially Texas, you may remember roads with names such as FM246 or FM18. What did the "FM" stand for? Well, it stood for "farm to market."

Yes, many of the South's rural areas were difficult to access by road after the war. They were inaccessible because if it rained too hard you couldn't get in or out. Dirt roads, it should be noted, turn to mud roads when mixed with water.

The South's farm to market strategy consisted of this: create harder surfaces on rural roads so when the weather did get bad farmers could still get their product out and their living supplies in. After all, farming remained the lifeblood of the South 60 years ago.

According to economic development veteran Jack Hammontree, the CEO of the McMinn County (Tenn.) Development Authority, the process of improving rural roads through the farm to market initiative was called "shoot and chip." Hammontree said, "They would shoot tar on the dirt roads and drop gravel or other types of rock in it while it was still hot to create a hard surface. The resulting new road worked pretty well, but it would get a little sticky in the summertime."

While the farm to market strategy helped farmers get their products out to buyers, the new roads created an unintended benefit for the rural South in general. As farmers were moving product out, owners of industry realized they could now get in to the region's rural areas and tap into a variety of things, namely natural resources, low cost land and hard working labor. While most Southern states didn't even think about industry discovering the benefits of a rural location as a result of "shoot and chip," that's exactly what happened.

Today, we have a 21st Century version of the "Farm to Market" strategy on the table and if states in the South are to recruit your business to their rural regions, then they are going to have to find a way to make it happen. While most of the rural South is easily accessible by good roads -- not of the rock and tar variety by the way -- less than two in 10 companies in any rural South location have access to high-speed, broadband Internet service.

It is inconceivable in today's economy to think of industry setting up shop on a dirt road in the rural South. Soon, it will also be inconceivable to expect industry to locate in a rural South location that doesn't have access to high-speed Internet service.

There are states in the South that realize that if they are going to make their rural regions more attractive to you, then they are going to have to light up those regions with broadband. Virginia has already started the process and North Carolina is right behind them. Other Southern states are in the initial stages of wiring their rural regions, yet, sadly, some haven't even thought about the 21st Century's newest version of "farm to market." It's those states that won't see their rural regions rebound like they should when the next great economic expansion occurs in the U.S.