Friday, July 8, 2016

The great farm frontier

Farmers Want Control of their Data

Washington—Swarms of drones this growing season will take to the skies over US farmland collecting countless terabytes of  data.  

Not only is that farm information priceless, its confidential and controversial. 

On Capitol Hill earlier this year Congressmen met with farmers to iron out a solution to the ‘big data’ issue. Farm testimony revealed that the data issue is bigger than the transition from draft horses to farm machinery.

“Think of it this way, a single farm not only harvests an astonishing amount of food but just as much information, both of which are extremely valuable in the marketplace,” said former Idaho Palouse wheat farmer Robert Blair. Blair is now Vice President of a company called Measure, the Drone as a Service Company. “Think of the commodity market information and the value of that data in aggregate and it’s a key piece of the puzzle. Compile that data and you can see trends. We’re talking production agriculture, there’s machinery data, chemical and crop information and all that can be benchmarked, profiled and its huge.”

In the old days farmers compiled crop information to memory, wrote it on calendars or on back of envelopes without thinking of it as data or consciously analyzing it. They felt the soil, eyed the plants and kept a close eye on the weather then figured out what needed to be done on a day to day basis. 

Things have changed drastically, today’s farmer feeds 150 people compared to 72 in the 1970s.  Thanks to data analysis, that number is expected to double by 2050 as the world’s population grows while farmland is disappearing.

At this moment crop information is pouring in from satellites, drones, computers and smart phones. Data analysts use the information gathered the past 10 decades on the farm. They then look at all the acreage in Idaho then all 50 states and end up harvesting a virtual mountain of information, its data farmers need to stay in the game.

That information increases productivity, determines how much fertilizer farmers will need to deliver a crop and how much more crop can be produced in the next decade. But farmers no longer have the resources to handle ‘big data’ even large corporations struggle with the weight and responsibility of the coming revolution.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is addressing the big data problems and just released a survey favoring the creation of a cooperative-style central repository for their data. They think having their own data clouds is the best way to secure their information and maximize its value. 

"We asked our members what they thought about data, and it is clear that boosting farmer confidence in security and data management will be critical to unlocking the potential this technology holds," said AFBF President Zippy Duvall. "This survey also shows that we are on the right track with various Ag group initiatives designed to improve data integration and promote transparency about how the data is collected and used." 
The last few years it was just machinery information that was gathered, but now a plethora of companies are gathering everything byte of information and that’s bringing data into a different realm. Farmers fear that some data will be used maliciously, by market competitors, activists, foreign governments, even neighboring farms.

“Growers not only want all this information but they also want to control and own their data,” added Robert Blair. “They don't want to see it going other places especially where they don’t have control. In my drone company, the growers own and control their data, we don't share with third parties unless we have written approval.”

AFBF is a founding member of the Ag Data Coalition, an organization created by several leading agricultural groups and companies to help farmers better store and manage their information in a central location. The ADC will establish a co-op-style repository for agricultural data, with farmers having a governing role over the group. 

Duvall said that is consistent with survey findings that 71 percent of respondents said they are interested in having access to the kind of data bank that ADC is developing, while 82 percent say it is important that farmers have a voice in the Ag data co-op. 

Farmers and Ag representatives taking the survey ranked vendor transparency high among their priorities. Farm Bureau and other groups recently introduced an additional tool called the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator to explain data in plain English breaking down convoluted details found in data contracts with Ag hardware and software providers.

“Right now companies collect a lot of data and most of it is benign but it still comes down to how its processed. Who do they sell it to? Agriculture is being attacked daily by activist groups, foreign competitors, at what point in time do they get hold of it and release subsidy information, yields, pesticide application, for me,thats the scary part. Only 10 percent of farmers today are using this aggregate information, that will double every year for decades, the Ag Data Coalition is a good start,” said Blair.

The AFBF survey revealed a high level of misunderstanding among respondents regarding data details in their contracts. When asked whether they knew if their contracts indicated they owned or controlled their own data, 55 percent of those surveyed said they did not know. Twelve percent said the contracts did not indicate control or ownership, and only 33 percent said their contracts specifically indicated that growers owned or controlled the data they generate. 

When asked whether contract details about sharing data with a third party, business partner or affiliate required approval of the grower, only 32 percent said they did. Fifty-four percent were unsure and 14 percent said prior approval from a grower was not required for data sharing. 

"This indicates a higher level of clarity and transparency is needed to secure grower confidence," Duvall said. "One of the topics I hear most about from farmers on the data issue is having a clear understanding about the details of 'Terms and Conditions' and 'Privacy Policy' documents we all sign when buying new electronics. You shouldn't have to hire an attorney before you are comfortable signing a contract with an Ag technology company and that goes a long way in helping farmers better understand the contracts before they sign on the dotted line.

Oklahoma professor Shanon Ferrell says farmer owned cloud co-ops are a great idea because farmers are very uneasy about access of their information.

“I think the EPA lawsuit from a couple of years ago had and impact. Thats where we saw a lot of information from livestock operations that were made public put out there for all to see. It’s still hurting us today. Then there was the  disclosure of Farm Subsides by the Environmental Working Group, that led to farmers having caution about the release of information along with recent stories of groups hacking government IT systems, we need the co-op clouds,” said Ferrell.

The AFBF survey also revealed other issues that must be addressed to help promote farmer acceptance, noting the following:  
•         Seventy-seven percent are concerned about which entities can access their farm data and whether it could be used for regulatory purposes;
•         Sixty-seven percent said they will consider how outside parties use and treat their data when deciding which technology or service provider to use;
•         Sixty-six percent believe farmers should share in the potential financial benefits from the use of their data beyond the direct value they may realize on their farm;
•         Sixty-one percent are worried that companies could use their data to influence market decisions; and
•         Fifty-nine percent were confused whether current agreements or contracts allowed technology or service providers to use their data to market other services, equipment or inputs back to them. 

This year's poll builds a foundation, an action plan that follows a 2014 survey that led to the development and publication of a set of Thirteen Principles on Data Privacy and Security that same year. Thirty-eight different agricultural companies and farm groups have signed on to the principles, to date. 

Since then, Duvall said Farm Bureau has focused its efforts on "bringing life" to the principles. Farm Bureau's work to date has primarily centered on three major projects. The first of which was the Creation of the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator; the development of a cooperative data repository by the Ag Data Coalition and additional education for farmers and ranchers on issues pertaining to data technology.

The information gathered by tractors, harvesters, aerial drones can bring in as much cash as crop. For farmers the data can be used to improve efficiency, simplify paperwork that adds up to more time and more money. Data also enables better food safety, affordability, better land stewardship and efficient use of irrigation water.

“It’s no surprise that the digital bread crumbs we leave behind is highly sought after information when we shop, bank, go online and do our research,” said Matt Bechdol for the Ag Data Coalition. “Universities need to do better research, manufacturers need it to build better farm equipment and input providers need it to produce cutting-edge seed and crop boosting technologies.”

This means determining ownership of this emerging resource and it’s the most important question that must be addressed as we enter the era of data-driven agriculture.

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