When the concept of precision agriculture first took off nearly two decades ago, the challenge was figuring out how to leverage the power of new technologies – such as GPS-guided machines, variable-rate seeding and fertilizer tools, and yield monitoring – to improve production efficiency and decision-making.
More recently, as onboard information-gathering systems for producers continue to grow more sophisticated and interactive, the major challenge for producers is to understand both the potential rewards and risks that come with their accumulated data.
“While issues in [agricultural] biotechnology took about 15 to 20 years to really sort themselves out, that won’t be true with agricultural data,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. “I think in the next five years, if we’re not sure the right things are being done to help protect farmers and ranchers on data management issues, it may be too late.”
The potential rewards: Selling farm data for profit
Most modern-day producers are familiar with big companies offering digital agriculture technologies. In crop farming, common tools include autonomous equipment-driving systems and real-time tracking of seed, fertilizer and chemical applications. On the livestock side, computer-aided systems can use a cow’s milk production as a guide to adjust daily feed rations, or use infrared cameras to monitor poultry flocks for potential fevers. Because of the continued advances in wireless systems, sensor capabilities and information storage, Monsanto in recent years has invested over $1 billion to acquire smaller companies with new digital technologies. Similarly, DuPont hopes to generate up to $500 million in additional annual revenue via growth in digital technology offerings for agriculture.
Many farm management technologies marketed by large companies operate on a simple premise: Participating producers gather and upload large reams of data, which is then analyzed by the provider in order to deliver management recommendations that can potentially cut input costs and improve yields. As interactive agriculture data gathering becomes more prevalent, the value of the actual information will most likely rise.
“The ability of producers to monetize their data will increase over time as the marketplace matures,” said John Fulton, a Big Data expert and associate professor of agricultural engineering at The Ohio State University. “That value could show up in different ways, from producers making a profit by selling data to also using it at a higher level in their operations to improve purchasing, production and marketing decisions.”
As increasing levels of venture funding flood into digital agriculture start-ups, several companies have focused on giving producers more control over their information, along with greater potential to make money on that data. For example, Kansas-based Farmobile put actual money on the table earlier this year via a data storage pilot program in Minnesota. In exchange for a year’s worth of field data collected on 250,000 acres of that state’s farmland, Farmobile guaranteed that participating producers would have the option to sell their completed Electronic Field Records for a return of at least $2 per acre. All profits for that data above the guaranteed return would be split evenly between producers and the company. After initially limiting total payouts at $1 million, the company lifted the cap in July, noting strong market demand for farm data.
The current risks: Five key areas
Clearly, there are more opportunities for producers to leverage their data than ever before. However, many of those opportunities also carry risks related specifically to how that data is handled by third-party resources. In conversations with a variety of producers, farm advocacy groups and other agricultural organizations, Thatcher cited several evolving data issues, including:
Data portability. Here’s a simple example: Assume a producer bought seed from one company for several years, while also providing a significant amount of data to help guide planting recommendations. If the producer switches seed providers, will that person be able to retrieve all previous data and, if so, will it be delivered in a format the producer or new company can effectively use?
Data privacy. Thatcher said producers clearly don’t want their data to be subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or other searches, where any current or archived information could be used against them by government agencies. Additionally, she said most producers are concerned about potential data leaks or breaches that could put them at a competitive disadvantage.
“In many cases, producers will regularly provide data to a company hundreds of miles away, but they don’t want that same data getting out to another farmer just down the road,” Thatcher said.
Transparency. For producers, this boils down to a clear understanding of how a third-party data services firm will use their farm and production data. To help simplify the evaluation, a coalition of agriculture organizations and industry suppliers created an Ag Data Transparency Evaluator. It’s a quick online resource that allows producers to check a number of agriculture data technology providers against a 10-question checklist, which helps clarify their practices for collecting, storing, and sharing or selling farm information.
Control. While producers routinely supply large amounts of data, it’s not always clear who owns that information. Given the hot-button nature of this topic, a number of industry associations, technology providers and land-grant universities developed an Agricultural Data Coalition, where producers can enter their own data and determine how, where and under what conditions it may be used.
Education. Among the current big picture risks, some agricultural advocates say this may be the one where the least progress has been made. While many equipment manufacturers and large agribusinesses do provide education on data-related topics, there’s a level of self-interest that’s hard to ignore. Thatcher said she hopes the Agricultural Data Coalition, which includes five land-grant universities, will be able to develop more robust, balanced training and information resources on producer data issues that could eventually be distributed via university extension offices.
Steps to take now
For producers who are concerned about data issues, or those who are considering digital services for the first time, several steps can make the evaluation process a lot less stressful. These include:
Retain copies of your own data. Even if producers aren’t actively planning to use, market or upload their production information right now, it’s wise to maintain a personal electronic record-keeping system. That data can potentially generate a lot of value over time – both for the producer’s on-farm use and potential marketability to third-party firms. Even if producers are currently uploading data to technology partners, they should still retain private copies for their own peace of mind.
“If you place your data into a third-party system, there’s a risk that you will be unable to download or receive the initial data from the system,” Fulton said. “So, it’s best to avoid any issues by maintaining a copy of the data, even if it’s just stored and organized by year.”
Pay close attention to the fine print. Before signing any technology services agreements, producers should be fully aware of the provider’s data sharing, control, privacy and portability practices. And, as the relationship moves forward, producers must remain vigilant about any changes in those data practices or revisions to agreements.
Request a value statement and check references. In addition to carefully reviewing terms and conditions, Fulton suggested that producers ask the technology provider to draft a “value-added” statement that summarizes – in plain English – what one received from signing up for a data-driven service. In addition, he said it’s also a good idea to request references and actually follow up with other producers regarding their experiences and value obtained on their farm.
This post comes from AgriBank’s AgriThought Report.