By Whitney Forman-Cook
The House Agriculture Committee heard from the private sector Wednesday on how it plans to safely use the “big data” American producers collect with farm equipment during their day-to-day operations.
“Big data has what seems like a boundless potential to improve the efficiency, profitability and competiveness of our nation’s farmers and ranchers,” Chairman Mike Conaway said in his opening statement. But before the benefits of big data can be fully realized, the Texas Republican said, an important question needs answering: How can privacy and private property rights be protected when farmers willingly hand their data over to private companies?
Today’s farmers generate data regularly with their modern tractors, combines, sprayers and planters equipped with computers, sophisticated sensors and GPS. These highly intelligent machines can record data on an inch-by-inch scale, giving farmers precise information they can use to effectively adjust input levels, maximize yields and even reduce sediment and nutrient runoff.
Away from the farm, the same data can be used to inform product development, manufacturing, trade and potentially agriculture policy, if producers allow their information to be sent to a virtual repository known as the “cloud.”
Take AGCO, for instance. Matt Rushing, a vice president for the farm equipment manufacturer told lawmakers at the hearing that the company “encourages growers to share” the data its machines collect to better understand what can be done to improve its product.
And even though the data is transferred to AGCO via cloud computing systems for use by the company, Rushing said the farmer still “owns and should have control and responsibility for the data generated by his or her operation.”
Climate Corporation, the company responsible for the Climate FieldView Platform that uses real-time and historical crop and weather data to make farm management prescriptions, also asks producers to share their data.
“As a company that will utilize our customers’ data in the course of developing these transformational digital tools, we take our commitment to safe-guarding that data very seriously,” said Mike Stern, the president and CEO of the company, which was acquired by Monsanto in 2013. Those safeguards include a guarantee that the farmers’ data will only be used for the services they subscribe to, it won’t be sold or shared with third parties, and that it can upon request be removed from the company system if a farmer decides to cut ties.
Big data could, in theory, end up in the wrong hands however. The witnesses described situations where an investor could use aggregated data gathered by companies for an unfair advantage in the futures markets. And they raised the possibility that regulators could use the data to identify which farms are conservation compliant, and which are no longer eligible for crop insurance or other assistance programs.
Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst testified that his group, commodity associations such as the American Soybean Association and a number of big agribusinesses, including John Deere, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto, are committed to developing a framework for the safe and transparent transfer of data that helps and protects farmers. But the government has to stay out of it, Hurst stressed.
“Farmers prefer this teamwork, ‘business-to-business’ approach over a regulatory approach or legislative ‘fix’ because we believe the market will provide the process to address problems if farmers have an equal footing with agribusinesses,” Hurst said. “If we rely on the government to make changes, the undue overhead might irreversibly deter innovation.”
The other hearing witnesses agreed that Congress could play a minor supportive role, but the free market should be allowed to establish its own standardized and secure process for transfer of agricultural data.
Billy Tiller, a fourth generation farmer, has done just that. As the cofounder and director of the Grower Information Service Cooperative (GiSC) – a farmer-owned data cooperative that advocates for grower data ownership and transparency in private sector data handling – Tiller testified that “big data” will only benefit family operations if farmers can safely share their information with other parties.
That’s why GiSC is developing “a secure data platform” that “integrates and stores data from the myriad of technologies adopted by the ag community” and also “allow growers to share data with others” while maintaining ownership.
GiSC said its platform will be called “AgXchange,” and expects its current membership of 1,300 farmers in 37 states to grow once it’s formally deployed.