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Fiber internet allows remote worker to pursue dream of farming

Kurt Stekl operates farm equipment at his family farm near Letcher, South Dakota
Kurt Stekl takes time off his full-time job at John Deere to help out at his Letcher family farm in the spring and summer.

Kurt Stekl doesn’t hesitate when asked what his dream job would be. Even though he grew up “obsessed” with John Deere equipment as a kid, his current job there as a contract engineer doesn’t quite rise to that level.

No, his dream job is farming. Specifically, working on his family farm where he grew up northeast of Letcher.

Partially inspired by the pandemic showing remote work was feasible, Stekl hatched a plan. He could work from his home in Letcher and a workshop at his family farm. He could take six weeks off in the spring and six weeks off in the fall to help with planting and harvesting crops. All while still designing drive train components and systems for the John Deere plant in Waterloo, Iowa.

His bosses signed off on it, and Stekl moved back home permanently.

The thought of working remotely, communicating with his coworkers on Teams and downloading and uploading large schematics wouldn’t be possible without a fast and reliable internet connection.

That’s where Santel Communications comes in. The internet provider for most of Sanborn County and one of the 17 member companies of SDN Communications made a commitment to providing fiber internet to every residence in 2018 through a $24 million improvement plan. Now the company is 100 percent fiber to the home – and the farm.

“There are a lot of people I work with who have connectivity issues — and there still are,” Stekl said. “You will get in meetings, and people are choppy and you can’t hear them. But I’ve never had an issue. As soon as you tell (your bosses) you have fiber internet, they say they’re good with it.”

Santel’s expansion made remote work possible for many

Santel Communications, which is based in Woonsocket, serves parts of 11 counties and the communities of Parkston, Woonsocket and Mt. Vernon, among others.

A $24 million network upgrade about five years ago resulted in Santel replacing hundreds of miles of copper cable with fiber. Santel used ConnectSD grants to install fiber in areas previously only served by Wi-fi towers.

Those upgrades have made streaming movies and playing video games online much smoother, but it’s not all for entertainment. Santel has customers whose livelihood centers around streaming bull sales, and a poor connection would be disastrous for business. Many others depend on Santel’s fiber network for remote work.

Santel Communications and state of South Dakota officials break ground on Santel's fiber expansion in Letcher, South Dakota

The Stekl family has seen those benefits first-hand.

“That’s exactly one of the reasons why this cooperative exists and why the staff and board of directors do what they do,” said Ryan Thompson, general manager and CEO of Santel. “It’s not only to take care of the people that are here — our friends, neighbors and families — but to secure the next generations and the opportunities for them.”

‘This is something that is pretty doable’

Stekl got his engineering degree at South Dakota State University and worked in Iowa for Kinze Manufacturing before moving to John Deere.

He stayed in Iowa working for John Deere before he started spending more time working from the shop at his parents’ farm. The reliable and fast internet connection made him realize a fully remote job was possible.

“It was kind of like, ‘This is something that is pretty doable,’” Stekl said. “I don’t understand why we couldn’t be doing this.”

Stekl has made it work since then, taking time off during the busy planting and harvesting seasons to work at the farm of his parents, Wes and Sherri Stekl.

Kurt Stekl is pictured in front of his work-from-home office in Letcher, South Dakota
Kurt Stekl works remotely for John Deere out of his home in Letcher and his family's farm northeast of town thanks to a fiber internet connection from Santel Communications.

Thompson is quick to point out that Sherri Stekl was one of the early adopters of the internet for Santel Communications. She designs websites for neighbors and other groups in the community.

Meanwhile, the Stekl operation is using smart ag technology to make farming easier and more productive.

“The biggest thing internet-related now is our John Deere connect mobile. All of our data from our planting, our combines and our sprayer — it uploads online and you can see it from your phone or computer or wherever. That’s one of the biggest things that has been an improvement (with fiber internet).”

Sometime in the future, Kurt Stekl says working on the family farm will be a full-time commitment and he’ll move on from his remote job with John Deere. In the meantime, the fiber internet connection from Santel allows him to focus on his two jobs and be closer to family.

“I am just really thankful that I have that opportunity,” Stekl said.