A company that began as a Silicon Valley start-up is hoping to change the way farmers do business by leveraging technology and farmer networks.
When people think about data, they often think about how to get a better prescription or make something narrowly useful on the farm, says Charles Baron, co-found of Farmers Business Network (FBN).
“And we challenge everyone to think of data in a new way, which is how can your data actually not only help you on the farm, but actually create a better farm economy?”
FBN has launched in Canada and bought Yorkton Distributors, giving Canadian members access to ag inputs. FBN is trying to solve the most difficult and costly problems for farmers, says Baron. Those include opacity around prices, a lack of price competition and practices such as hidden discounts. Those practices cost farmers “enormous amounts of money,” he says.
Baron describes FBN as a grower network that connects producers digitally. For a fee, farmers can access FBN’s platform. Members then get access to pools of aggregated data. The network analyzes chemical and seed prices, providing input price transparency to members. Members can also analyze their farm agronomic data to benchmark operations and optimize inputs. For example, Baron says farmers could use FBN to figure out which canola seeds perform best in their areas based on the yield performance analysis in the network.
Members can buy inputs online or through Yorkton Distributors. Members can also apply for financing. Baron compares FBN’s e-commerce system to any other online purchases a person would make in his daily life. The no-haggle prices are available 24/7, he adds.
“So the price that a 100,000 acre farm could get at FBN, a 5,000 acre farm could get as well.”
FBN also offers a live pricing feed and a profitability analysis from several Canadian elevators, which covers several crops. It’s not yet developed to the same degree as the U.S. marketing platform, “but it’s something we’re expanding rapidly.”
Canadian members can also access satellite imagery and data processing at no extra cost.
Know your data agreements
There have been discussions around data usage and farmers owning their own data. But what does that mean on a practical level?
Baron says the first data-usage questions should be who am I doing business with and what is the company’s ultimate aim and interest.
“The purpose of FBN is to make our members more profitable. We do that by networking them. We do that by allowing them to share information. And then we do that by creating new businesses that help them take advantage of that information.”
Farmers join FBN and share their data explicitly to access aggregated data created by all the other FBN members. The data is anonymous in the sense that members can’t see what specific farms are doing.
“But you can access those aggregated data insights that are produced by the FBN analytics and sharing system that we created.”
Farmers can remove their personal data from the FBN system. But FBN also create an aggregated data set from member data which remains within the system.
By creating a sub-account, members can provide access to third-party advisers such as independent agronomists or accountants. Baron adds that FBN doesn’t sell memberships to entities such as seed dealers, seed companies or grain traders.
The Ag Data Transparency Evaluator has also bestowed its seal of approval on FBN’s ag data contracts. Ag Data Transparency is a non-profit based in the U.S. that includes board members from farmer-led organizations and ag-tech provides. Companies submit their contracts and a third-party evaluator looks at 10 criteria, including whether the company will get the farmer’s consent before giving other companies access to their data and whether the company will notify the farmer if the agreement changes.
Attorney Todd Janzen of Janzen Ag Law administers the project. So far 18 organizations are certified Ag Data Transparent, including Farm Credit Canada and John Deere. For a complete list of companies visit www.agdatatransparent.com/certified.
Baron says Ag Data Transparent’s core principles line up with FBN’s core principles. He sees Ag Data Transparent as a good initiative.
“We’re very supportive of the principles of transparency and making it easy for farmers to understand terms of service and what’s involved in the use of ag data,” says Baron.
Another headline-grabbing technical issue is data breaches from high-profile companies such as Facebook. Baron says protecting data goes beyond data security. It includes considerations such as controlling who can access data internally, guarding against malware and hacking attempts, and chain of custody, he says.
Security has to be part of a company’s DNA, he adds.
“You can’t be lax about it. You have to design security into your system as you build up the company, as you grow.”
Disruptive tech in seed breeding
In 2019, U.S. members of Farmers Business Network will be able to plant seed from FBN’s F2F Genetics Network.
Independent breeders develop F2F seed. U.S. farmers will be able to share performance data with other growers. They’ll also be able to feed data on variety performance back to the breeding network so they can develop better seed for farmers, Baron says.
The idea is that breeders will then be able to use that information to develop better-performing varieties at a lower cost. Farmers effectively turn their data into a “massive saving” on their seed crop, says Baron.
F2F is launching with five conventional corn hybrids and four glyphosate-tolerant soybeans, Business Wire notes. Soybean growers will also be able to save and replant F2F soybean seed for a fee. Varieties are bred for growing conditions in Nebraska to Ohio. The FBN website lists corn at $105 a bag and soybeans at $31 per bag as of October 17.
F2F won’t be available to Canadian members for 2019, but Canadian growers may want to keep an eye on how it plays out south of the border.