Farm Bureau wary of Big Data

Jan 24, 2014
by DTN

American Farm Bureau members are concerned about the drive in private industry for “Big Data” and what such data aggregation efforts mean for personal information.

Delegates to the group’s annual convention adopted a new policy this week, stating that such information should remain property of the farmer and warrants protection.

Members believe companies have an obligation to fully disclose how they use data, compensate farmers when information is shared with third parties and prevent such information from being subject to federal Freedom of Information Act requests. Also, farmers should have the right to ask for their data back from a private company.

One Farm Bureau state president told DTN that farmers have concerns over various issues, such as how they are measured against others on fertilizer use, for instance. Moreover, Farm Bureau members became more concerned about data collection and sharing after EPA gave personal information about livestock feeding operations to environmental groups last year.

Interest was also piqued last year when Monsanto Co. announced the $930 million purchase of Climate Corp., citing the potential of leveraging the data aggregation and analysis that Climate Corp. has developed in weather to aid research and development of seed technology.

Farm Bureau staff has been studying the issues of data collection since last fall to look at different questions facing producers and farm organizations.

In a seminar at the AFBF meeting, Matt Bechdol, Founder and President of GeoSilos, sought to ease some of the concerns about data aggregation. GeoSilos is an Indiana-based consulting firm that studies data applications and analyzing technologies for precision agriculture. Bechdol likes to focus on geography, calling himself “a map geek.”

Bechdol dismissed some of the concerns over data accumulation, though he acknowledged such data can fundamentally change agriculture. He said data is becoming a modern agricultural commodity. In that regard, he said commodities spoil if they are stored but not properly protected. “Big data is just data,” he noted. Used properly, it can drive decisions and drive income.

“You have to value-add it so you can go from those data decisions to dollars,” Bechdol said.

Bechdol later added, “It’s only big data and only scary because we don’t know what to do with it.”

In agriculture, there is plant data, sprayer data, harvest data, weather data, accounting data. “It’s coming really, really fast as we expand the role of sensors in agriculture. That data is coming in real time. It is coming very fast from a lot of different angles,” he said.

When considering if someone should be compensated for their data, Bechdol said people already are compensated. “If you are engaging someone to do something for you with your data such as field strips or some imagery to analyze your yield data, you are exchanging in terms of a service, you are getting something back,” he said.

Such data is already out there for farmers with new weather sensors and soil sensors as well as cloud technology to help centralize information. “We are going to use these technologies. There is no question about it. It is just how we are going to use it.”

Bechdol said a whole new group of “ag informatics” industry is being developed to help farmers with management decisions. Data will help sort out the variables to make sense to farmers. He used the example of examining weather models for the next six months to change seed populations or hybrids when planting crops.

“It’s about what makes decisions in real time rather than what has happened in the past,” he said. “It’s about moving from statistics to probability.”

Technology also will drive more traceability to meet consumer demands with relatively little costs. “Consumers are really pushing these kinds of issues and technology is allowing us to do it.”

Bechdol added that a healthy skepticism of sharing data is fine “but let’s not let it get in the way of innovation.”

Better managers are going to see the value in sharing information to help benchmark their work against others. “It is very important for us to share our data. It will make us better managers.”

He did stress that it is important for people to read the legal documents of data-sharing and licensing agreements to know what they are getting into.

Yet, hype about technology and its potential will continue. He cited both new smartphone applications as well as the ongoing buzz about drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles. UAVs expect to see a $2 billion market in agriculture by the end of next year.

Then there are wearable technologies that accumulate personal information about what a person is doing or is keeping track of their health status. “We are going to use these technologies,” he said. “It’s not a question of if, but how we are going to use it.” — Chris Clayton, DTN