fb - voice of agriculture

September 2014

Agriculture’s New Frontier

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

Many of today’s farmers and ranchers are expanding into a new frontier — the age of “big data.”

Companies have been gathering data about consumer buying habits for years. For many farmers, dealing with companies that want to collect their data about planting practices and crop yields is new territory.

Seed and farm equipment companies—we call them agricultural technology providers—are offering services to help farmers be more efficient and productive. Data will flow straight from a farmer’s tractor to the company he uses. In return, farmers will get information and recommendations on how to get the most out of every square inch of their fields. Some call it prescriptive planting. It’s only the latest in a trend of exciting new technologies that help farmers produce more or better products while using fewer resources.

Before You Sign

The promise of agricultural “big data” is enough to tempt even the most private farmers to let the agricultural technology companies do a little mining into their proprietary information.

Before they sign up, farmers need to get answers to some important questions.

Farmers need to ask who owns the data they share with the companies and how that data will be controlled and used. Could the information make its way to commodities traders? Could farmers’ information be subject to a legal subpoena? Could the information somehow end up in the hands of government agencies that regulate farm practices? Will the companies share the data with other companies that could use it to try to sell other products and services? If so, will the company pay the farmer for the value of his data?

Will farmers be able to get their data back if they end their agreements with the companies? What happens if the farmer wants to switch to a different agricultural technology provider; will the data be portable?

Signing data sharing agreements without knowing the answers to these questions is too big a gamble to take.

Farmers must also ensure that the contracts they are being asked to sign are consistent with the assurances that companies have provided in other documents that are not legally binding, such as guiding principles, privacy statements or marketing brochures.

The Wild, Wild West

The news almost regularly includes a story about a data security breach by a large company, affecting millions of consumers. PCWorld magazine recently listed the five biggest data breaches of 2014 “so far,” affecting customers of eBay, Michaels stores and others. Farmers should be just as concerned about their farm data as retail customers are about their financial information. Before they agree to share their farm data, farmers need to know what precautions companies are taking to protect them.

As with any fast-developing technology or industry, things can seem a little lawless out there in data country. Farm Bureau is working with the agricultural technology providers to develop principles for how farmers’ data will be managed and secured, and we are working to help farmers be informed consumers in the data marketplace.

Rolled out on a large scale this year, the use of “big data” in agriculture is growing with the speed of a locomotive steaming across the transcontinental railroad. Farm Bureau doesn’t want to put the brakes on, but we do want farmers to know where they are headed when they climb aboard.