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Control, and revenue too

The co-op aims to put farmers in total control of their data, and the income it earns

A generation ago, farmers first got introduced to GPS yield monitors and the way they could document everything that passed through their combines. From that very first exposure, it seemed inevitable the technology would prove a stepping stone to enhanced on-farm management of crops, inputs and soil health.

It didn’t happen overnight, of course, but yield monitors did open the door to the idea that the data is something that’s separate from the actual crop.

And it was also the birth of the even more extraordinary idea that data has a value worth growing and managing for its own sake.

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Much of that data promise has yet to be fully realized, much like the way so much of the benefit of precision farming has yet to be fully realized, partly because of the complexity and diversity of the technological offerings in an ever-expanding marketplace.

There’s also a challenge inherent in the data itself, however. Simply put, there’s just so much of it. The sheer volume of it is a hurdle in a world where the farmer’s time is already in short supply. It’s enough to make data seem an unaffordable luxury.

Now, though, the goal of AGBox and AgID, a data co-op and verifiable credential platform environment, is to change that. It’s been nearly six years since Dr. Karen Hand and Dr. Tyler Whale began examining how the many data points available from on-farm activities were being used in the agri-food value chain at the time. From that beginning, they developed Canadian Digital Agri-Food (CDAF) and started formulating a network for aggregating data, verifying it and making it available to a list of potential users.

Using a network such as AgBox and AgID, growers may finally be rewarded for sequestering carbon. photo: Supplied

That might sound familiar, but the difference with AgID and AGBox is that farmers would be in control of their data, including its encryption, which in turn means their data can’t be appropriated without the farmer’s consent.

And there’d be another big benefit, its founders say. The co-op would also create a market with customers willing to pay for the type of information farmers collect.

Central focus on ‘the farm’

Hand and Whale are proposing a seamless, complex, fully integrated series of networks with data on everything from what happens in the field to what happens at processing and retailing.

Agriculture has been told that consumers want safe and nutritious food, and also that they want that food produced using ethical methods and in ways that create a smaller carbon footprint and leave the world better for future generations.

And, apparently, all this is supposed to come without recognizing farmers’ contributions, including the data that verifies the benefits.

Hand says there has been a greater effort to connect data, space and time and make it useable. She was part of an exhaustive user-needs assessment completed in late 2016 which involved hundreds of interviews with farmers followed by advisors, their associations, government and researchers. That was the “get out of the box” moment for Hand, exploring the possibilities and understanding the challenges.

The question then became: If you could access the data, what could you do with it?

Dr. Karen Hand, Precision Strategic Solutions. photo: Supplied

“It was amazing the amount of thought and ideas that came from that,” says Hand, president and chief executive officer of Precision Strategic Solutions. “As we looked at the data systems, we started working on the next phases: What does it look like if we interconnect data across these siloed assets that we have in agri-food?”

In its current format, data collection is unwieldy, complex and inefficient, and it cannot be governed in a way that directly benefits the agri-food sector. That is precisely where AgID/AGBox says its differentiation lies.

Its environments are ready to launch with the right use case. The data co-op will allow farmers to generate their own “digital wallets” with verifiable credentials that can digitize and store virtually every aspect of on- farm activity, and the data can then be shared or sold as desired by the farmer.

“Our vision was to build the whole ethical, authentic and enlightened ecosystem of how we digitize agriculture, and one can imagine that’s a large project to undertake,” says Whale, president of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies. “At the time, there were a variety of technology providers and multinational companies ahead of the curve, looking to make money on farmer data or providing services for more digital insights.”

The needs of the farmer

Whale and Hand envision a system that ensures farmers are full partners at the table. That’s in contrast to big companies like Google, IBM or some of the current ag stakeholders becoming data stewards for data that is not theirs to steward.

The thinking is that agriculture needs a data co-op that farmers own and control yet isn’t cumbersome to participate in, and that is trusted and includes cybersecurity. Those are the advantages of the AgID/AGBox environment, and why Whale and Hand are advocating it to farmers.

They approached producer groups anticipating it would be obvious that data management would be a key priority and that shared architecture would be an attractive reason to work together in order to improve performance and save costs.

But such ideas are complex, as are the relationships, and they require trust and governance. It can be simpler for producer groups to stay with the status quo and remain in their silos, so not enough is being done or being done fast enough for Whale and Hand to have confidence that farmers won’t completely lose control of their data assets and won’t lose out as partners in the growing digital economy.

Dr. Tyler Whale, Ontario Agri-Food Technologies. photo: Supplied

“We’re taking on a new strategy and we’re not trying to build the farmer data co-op initially with farmers, ironically,” says Whale. “We’re trying to create marketplaces for farmers’ data — and let’s use the metaphor of the library: we have the architecture and the shelving units in place. But we’re only going to put data on the shelves that have a marketplace, an important function or that are already ‘collected’. This way, there will be demand from the outset while retaining farmer control and building this asset intelligently.”

Today, precision ag is being linked to sustainability using terms like ethically sourced, regenerative ag and carbon footprints, and they’re being built into the food value chain. The confusion comes when there isn’t buy-in from every point along that chain. Producers who say they needn’t worry about traceability are facing a new reality where, for instance, the corn they feed to hogs may be valued for the carbon footprint it creates, not just its feed value. There is extra value in eco-friendly production, even when it’s “just” feed.

“We’re advancing AgID and AgBox through conversations with major processors, highlighting their opportunity to gain insights that will add value to their end-product and client base,” says Whale. “Those are insights they can get when working in partnership with farmers and reflect real verified practices and actions.”

It’s creating a data marketplace that values all participants and builds sustained buy-in. Otherwise farmers won’t bother collecting the data in the first place. If there is a transparent and fair system that treats data as a commodity that farmers can capture and sell, then further down the line another group can add more value to the data and sell it for more.

“That’s a better system than data being stolen from farmers with no value flowing back their way,” says Whale. “Measuring eco-system services on-farm is a perfect example of that. Farmers should get credit for carbon sequestration, not the company that moves the data through the ‘farm-to-fork system.’”

Whale and Hand also believe that what the benefit to the farmer looks like will depend on who’s using or needs the data. It might be a monetary offer to the farmer, or something like lower insurance rates. There’s a marketplace to build, and Whale is advocating to build it through potential downstream users who are willing to buy the data or the verification of an on-farm practice or management decision. If growers don’t want to gather or sell that type of information, they don’t have to.

Another triangle

A verified credential ecosystem (AgID) supported by a data-sharing co-op (AgBox) is grounded in a “trust triangle,” a key principle of verifiable credentials. All farmers, states Hand, generate data on their farms. This is where a “digital wallet” comes into play, in which a farmer has a digital identity and credentials about themselves and their farm, verified by trusted entities like a crop advisor, a soil laboratory, a veterinarian or a farm organization.

An example would be engaging in no-till farming, or meeting all requirements for a high degree of animal welfare. A credential holds a checkmark that recognizes various properties and practices on a farm without having to pass along the data. The three points of the trust triangle must include the farmer, the issuer (certifier) and the verifier, the entity or person who wants the verified information and trusts the issuer.

“With that, the farmer can pass the verified credential on to select verifiers, those that need to know,” says Hand. “You don’t have to open up your data or open it up according to what’s being asked of farmers now, where they never realize value because others simply take that data, monetize it where it then becomes a revenue stream for someone else.”

Finding processors and retailers who value the use of cover crops will generate demand for data co-ops. photo: Supplied

Using verified credentials, the farmer has a direct means to participate in markets, eliminating entities that currently sit between them and the markets. It also allows them to bring verified scientific data, cryptographically trusted and human-trusted, to the marketplace. When Hand saw how other sectors, such as finance, health and education, were using digital identities and verifiable credentials, it was a lightbulb moment for her. In fact, this is what the Ontario government looks to implement as part of its Ontario Onwards action plan for a people-focused government; Whale and Hand want a farmer-focused agri-food.

“For me, it was the perfect fit for agri-food where we can enable a system for farmers that are part of the market with direct access, and can lean on those who can scientifically verify their information without having to expose their confidential business data,” she says. “This could solve so many problems in agri-food. It’s not a rip-and-replace — it enables our legacy systems, like the Canadian dairy network and the efforts to improve the genetics and the work in dairy herd improvement and assets they bring to the table.”

Shifting economies

The notion that farmers will finally gain some recognition for what they do — and the potential for an added revenue stream — is what draws highly connected Ontario farmer Don McCabe to the table. Six or seven years ago, he first became aware of “big data,” and he’s part of the AgID/AgBox development team to provide farmer perspective on the importance of the information they’re generating.

McCabe wants to look at this from a point beyond the current model for farming, which favours a linear economy where making money is the primary focus. He believes AgID and AgBox — aside from empowering farmers — will help move agriculture to a circular economy which still makes money but alters the focus, turning “waste” into “underutilized opportunity.”

“Let’s get into a circular economy where some of what we do is not an end point but a starting point for some- body else, with fresh capital coming in to reward us for doing right,” says McCabe. “AgID and AgBox allows all attributes to be recognized and that’s the reality of dealing with climate change or doing anything within a natural system. We have avoided addressing our externalities in these economies all the way along … we can unleash new market opportunities to bring a whole new world of commodities that we never knew existed.”

To McCabe, farmers produce starch, oil, fibre, energy and protein, but they are also managers of the carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and their work has an impact on and improves the quality of everyone’s environment.

He sees the AgID and AgBox environment using sensors to measure various traits and make a farmer’s operation better than it was the day before — and then paying the farmer for their higher level of excellence.

“We have all the potential in the world, but it’s only potential — until you hit that switch to make it hap- pen,” says McCabe. “AgID and AgBox will be that switch to allow things to be realized, and that’s when that potential will be able to go to work and bring value out of a system.

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