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Big Data Is Headed to Pasture, and Farmers Want to Cash In

As Monsanto and DuPont buy into the big data game, farmers wonder if collecting all this data leaves them vulnerable to an "overall-clad Snowden."
Image: Wikimedia Commons

To judge just from “No Trespassing” signs weathering on their fences, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that farmers are protective of their property. After all, it’s their living. But it’s interesting that even when the property in question is digital, farmers are warier than your typical Facebook-oversharing city dweller.

At farming conferences over the winter and into early spring, one hot topic has been big data—why it’s worth collecting, who it should be shared with, and at what price. Unlike those of us freely filling Facebook’s coffers with our statuses, farmers want to get a cut of the big data yield, and they want make sure the information isn’t hacked or exploited by seed companies, environmental groups or released by some "overall-clad Edward Snowden," as one AP story put it.


There are more and more sensors out on the farm and on farm equipment, measuring soil conditions, seeding rates, crop yields. Eventually—sooner than you might think—the plants themselves may be broadcasting their own data. Technology’s advance means that “increasingly specific data is available today on almost every plot of arable land in the US,” according to one industry analyst. The question now, is how will farmers use data, and who will they share it with.

"'Big Data' is coming, and it's going to hit you like a tidal wave," said data expert Kenneth Cukier while speaking March 20 at Livestock, Forage and Grain Forum in Indianapolis . Cukier is the author of a book called Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think and is the data editor for The Economist.

"Data collected by farm machinery manufacturers can now in some cases analyze—in real time as you move across the field—when different parts of your combine are operating outside the normal range of heat or vibration. Then they can accurately predict a part failure before it happens, saving you valuable time and money," Cukier said.

Lowell Catlett, economist, futurist, and Dean of the College of Agriculture at New Mexico State University explained the upside to harvesting data to Hoosier Ag Today. “If you share your data, we can get better information on where the insects are and where to spray to keep them out of your field. If you allow us to collect and aggregate that data,” he said.


But Catlett has warned farmers not to share that data without getting something in return. “In many cases, the data may be as valuable as the crop itself,” he told the Bayer Crop Science Ag Issues Forum.

And the interested parties are familiar names on the farm—names like DuPont and, of course, Monsanto, which is on a buying spree. Monsanto bought the high-tech farm equipment maker Precision Planting in 2012. Last October, it bought the Climate Corporation, a data-analytics firm that provides weather-related farm services and crop insurance, and is also handling Monsanto's fledgling data-related services. DuPont hasn’t exactly been slouching either, launching Encirca, “a new suite of whole-farm decision services aims to help improve productivity and profitability for the farmer.”

Monsanto and other seed companies ostensibly want to use the data to help farmers get higher yields on the same amount of land. But the big brands have to assure farmers that all their information will be closely guarded.

According to the Associated Press , farmers worry that “hedge funds or a large company with access to ‘real-time’ yield data from hundreds of combines at harvest time might be able to use that information to speculate in commodities markets long before the government issues crop-production estimates.”

The same story explained that farmers are concerned that GPS-linked farm data or sensitive information could end up in the hands of the EPA or “antagonistic environmental groups.” Last year, the EPA released “private and confidential information of livestock and poultry producers to the public” in response to a FOIA request, which led to a lawsuit, a temporary restraining order, and now legislation to keep the EPA from giving out addresses and names where farmers not only work, but often live.


In spite of these misgivings, some farmers are open to data sharing.

“I find producers taking a variety of positions,” said Bruce Knight, writing at Agripulse. “Some growers want to establish an exclusive relationship with one of the big players like DuPont or Monsanto because they believe those who follow the lead of the major agricultural companies will be able to stay on top of things and shift quickly when they need to.”

As part of a panel, Kip Tom explained to Livestock, Forage and Grain Forum that the mixed blessing of big data comes with more responsibilities for the farmer. "Farmers need to educate themselves. Understand what Big Data is, and how data's owned and controlled," Tom said. "Just like we spend time in the owner's manual of a new combine, we need to do the same with our data and how we manage it."

As big data is already in our educational records,our diseases, and our social unrest, and has long been applied to agriculture though publicly available soil surveys conducted by the government. Putting big data in the hands of ag-business giants might make some uneasy—as ag-gag laws have made clear, sometimes the reasons for keeping data under wraps are less than pure.

But what doesn’t seem disputed is that the data is going to be collected. What the data yields, remains to be seen.