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Who’s handling your farm data? Keep an eye on this U.S. model

Data is becoming an industry. Whether you like it or not, you’re part of it

We talk about environmental stewardship, land stewardship and animal stewardship in agriculture, but there’s not a lot of discussion about data stewardship. And that’s too bad because there are some good reasons to have control over who accesses our data.

I’m really talking about Big Data here — the move by businesses to collect mountains of data from their customers, pool it and trawl for interesting patterns and market trends. In agriculture, we’ve seen BASF partner with Affinity on farm management and accounting software. A couple of years ago, Monsanto purchased Climate Corp, a climate data company started by former executives of Google. And anyone who’s ponied up for a new tractor or combine recently knows that machinery companies have their own data systems embedded in the equipment.

There are practical concerns around data use in the agriculture industry. If, for example, you break up with your long-time agronomist, will you be able to take your production data with you? And will your agronomist delete it from their laptop and company servers?

How will you manage the ballooning data pile, especially when the various platforms you use don’t talk to each other?

Who’s using your data

Do you know who is accessing your data and for what purpose?

Farmers — along with the ag industry — have been pondering these questions south of the border. U.S. farmers have started a co-op, called Grower Information Services Cooperative (GISC), to pool their data and control who accesses it.

The cooperative is working with Ag Pro Exchange, a company whose investors include farmers and a company outside of the agriculture industry. Together, they’re developing a cloud-based platform for farmers to store their data. Farmers will control who views their data and how much access they have through this system.

I chatted with Billy Tiller, a Texas farmer and director of business development with GISC. Right now GISC has about 1,300 members in 37 states, he said. Another 6,000 farmers are interested and waiting to see what the co-op does, he added.

GISC members will be testing the system in May, to make sure it’s easy to use and gives them what they need, he said. Eventually they’ll offer other premium services that have a price tag. But free data storage really underpins what they’re trying to do, he explained. And the majority of the co-ops members consider that crucial.

The Co-operative isn’t trying to create roadblocks for the ag industry, he said. In fact, one of the Co-op’s goals is to share better information with agribusiness, so they can bring better products to market.

But if farmers are sharing data with corporations, there should be something in it for them, Tiller told me. For example, the Co-op hopes to eventually sell reports to agribusinesses, when it’s in the interest of farmers, and when they have enough data to render individual farmers anonymous. It will channel money from those sales back to members.

Tiller is far from a Luddite. He is a fan of technology and science that helps him boost yields, use less pesticide and manage his farm better. He bought a 3-D printer just to see how it worked, he told me. He also has a business background and worked in banking for years.

Nor is he trying to vilify agribusiness, he said. “We want to make sure we have at least one hand on the steering wheel, even if somebody else has a partial hand on it,” he said.

Tiller and I chatted for quite a while, and the gist of our conversation was that an agribusiness’s interests will frequently overlap with a farmer’s interests. After all, if a machinery company wants to keep its customers, it has to build equipment that its customers need.

And the people running those corporations today may have the best intentions when it comes to protecting their customers’ data.

The future of your data

But if a company’s information services are losing money, how can you know they won’t sell that part of their business? As Tiller pointed out, corporations are accountable to their shareholders.

We only need to look at RadioShack, which recently filed for bankruptcy in the U.S., for a worst-case scenario. RadioShack customers handed over personal data, such as names and addresses, to the retailer on the condition it wouldn’t be bought or sold. But now that RadioShack is sinking, that data is on the auction block.

In all fairness to the agriculture industry, they haven’t been shutting out GISC from their own efforts to standardize the way data is shared. Tiller said that AgGateway, a consortium of agribusiness that is working to standardize how they handle data, has been very cooperative. In fact, GISC is now a member.

But waiting on the sidelines isn’t a great option for farmers. Tiller thinks things will settle in the next few years, leaving fewer companies standing in the big ag data arena. GISC needs “to be there when the dust settles,” Tiller said. “And if we do that, we’ve succeeded.”

Personally, all this makes me quite optimistic. It looks like U.S. farmers will have a hand in how their data is handled. They’re being quite proactive on this, and it seems like most agribusinesses are willing to work with farmers on it.

Whether Canadian farmers will do the same is still up in the air. But Tiller’s been getting lots of interest from our side of the 49th, he said. GISC doesn’t have a presence in Canada, but Canadian farmers are on the Co-op’s email lists.

Canadian growers are very independent, he said, probably partly because of the weather they deal with.

“I mean, they make their own world when they have to,” Tiller said. “But if you talk to them about what it means to own data, it’s like a revolution.”

The horse hasn’t yet left the barn. Now’s the time to shut the door, or at least put a halter on the hayburner before he’s half a mile down the road.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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