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Getting rich from your farm data

Data protection isn’t just for geeks. If you farm, you’ve got a pile of real dollars at stake. Here’s how

Getting rich from your farm data

Farmers do all they can to protect their crops and livestock from pests, diseases and weather. We insure our buildings and equipment. We adopt marketing strategies to protect against price declines.

But if you ask what we do to protect our farm data, you’ll usually get met with a blank stare.

That’s not good. Information is an asset. It has real value, and that value is getting bigger A 2014 American Farm Bureau survey found 60 per cent of U.S. farmers now use some precision technology or are inputting farm data into an off-farm company data system. More than half also plan to use even more precision agriculture and data technology in the next couple of years.

The reason is simple. Good data increases the farm’s profitability. The AFB survey found farmers who use precision technology have reduced their input costs by an average of 15 per cent while increasing crop yields by an average of 13 per cent.

However, the same survey also found that while four out of five farmers believe they own and have control of their data, they don’t know all the ways that companies may be using their data. Nor are they sure what the fallout could be if a company holding their farm data were to be hacked or breached.

Yet three-quarters of farmers also told the survey they are already worried that their data could be used for regulatory purposes, or that it could be used by a third party for market-sensitive commercial activities.

The survey found farmer’s top three concerns with respect to data were:

  • Liability — In the case of a data breach, who is liable for my farm data? Can misuse of my data be used against me if not obtained legally?
  • Usage — How is my data being used? Who is it being shared with?
  • Privacy — Can my data be traced back to my specific operation?

Nor is the playing field static. Monsanto has invested heavily in companies that collect and disseminate farm data. In 2012, it purchased Precision Planting for the company’s seeding software, and in 2013 it paid $930 million for Climate Corp., a company with the tools to crunch large amounts of weather and farm data, so Monsanto will be able to put together information that farmers will purchase for assistance with their planting and cropping plans.

“We view this as a platform that is as important to Monsanto as the biotech (one),” Climate Corp. vice-president Anthony Osborne said in a May 11, 2014 interview in USA Today.

Based on its near $1-billion price tag, Monsanto apparently agrees.

Plus, in 2014, Climate Corp. bought Solum, a soil testing service. By linking the three companies, Monsanto hopes to offer reliable planting prescriptions to farmers through its FieldScripts software package.

Also in 2014, Deere and Co. entered into a joint venture to create a cloud-based software platform for agriculture retailers and consultants.

Then, on November 3, 2015, Monsanto and Deere completed a deal which would see Deere purchasing Precision Planting’s line of equipment from Monsanto while enabling Monsanto to link its Climate Corp. business to the John Deere equipment lineup and be able to access the data that is generated by that equipment.

“Monsanto’s Climate division will become the first outside company with which Deere allows its equipment to share data in what the companies called ‘near real-time,’” reported.

Nor did it end there. One week later, Trimble announced it was acquiring Alberta-based Agri-Trend, the largest network of independent agricultural consultants in North America. According to the Trimble news release, Trimble’s Connected Farm Advisor — a real time field data collection, sharing and management tool — will be integrated with the Agri-Trend Agri-Data platform and its 75 million acres.

Trimble did not respond to my request for information on the company’s policy for protecting farmers’ data and whether data will be used for purposes other than the needs of the individual farmer.

I also asked if Trimble would share any gathered data (individual or compiled) from farmers with a third party, and what happens to farm data if the farmer stops using Trimble or Agri-Trend services.Again, though, I received no answer.

In the U.S., the Farm Bureau foresaw the growing demand for access to farm data by large agricultural corporations. It also believes there is a real risk of farmers’ data being abused. As a result they drafted their “Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data.” These principles were developed in consultation with farmers and a number of industry partners, and as of last January, 34 companies, ranging from equipment manufacturers and seed and chemical companies to data technology companies had endorsed them.

It is important to note, however, that these principles are guidelines only and are not legally binding on companies or farmers. They are simply a framework for addressing farm concerns about the security of our data.

The principles address ownership of data, permission to collect data, and notification of farmers if their data is being disclosed and used. The principles also give the farmer the choice to opt out or disable data collection as well as ensuring farmers have the right and ability to retrieve and delete data, plus providing full disclosure before a farmer’s data is disclosed or sold to a third party.

The complete list of principles as well as the companies which have agreed to the principles can be found here.

Farm data versus trade secrets

Businesses rigorously protect their secrets. Now, farm data must be treated as secret too.

Analysis of your farm data can show what your break-even price is for each crop you grow. Do you really want your buyers to know this? Data analysis can also show how much you can pay for rent, or how much you can afford to pay for inputs.

Detailed production and cost data from farmers, or from your specific farm, would be a windfall for landlords seeking to maximize rents, or for seed and chemical companies when setting prices for inputs.

Nor are they the only ones who could benefit from your data. That information is just as valuable to marketers and speculators, providing them with information on crop supply numbers.

AcreValue is a great example of how farm data is being applied for more than just production and farm management practices, and I recommend you check the site out. It uses soil tests, regional cropping data, and satellite photos to identify individual fields across the U.S., and it puts a dollar value per acre on each field in a number of states including Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota.

It is amazing to see the differences in value of neighbouring fields as a result of soil tests, topography, and crop history. Anyone can go to this website and check out the “value” of an individual field in these four states, and after registering, obtain a free detailed report.

The alternatives

If you worry about losing control of your farm data, there are a growing number of alternatives to the conventional data information services.

Johannes Heupel farms near Stony Plain, Alta. He has a background in electrical engineering and computer programming. He designed a GPS guidance and mapping system which uses a standard GPS receiver, a Windows-based PC laptop, and his own software. His complete system, including cables and mounting hardware comes in at under $2,000, which is thousands less than name brand guidance systems. He has sold his system to farmers around the world under the name FarmerGPS. In 2014 he added auto-steer capability to his system.

Heupel believes farmers must do more to protect their data. He says he has heard stories of traders trying to purchase the real-time harvest data that modern harvest equipment generates to speculate on grain prices. Technically, the production information needed for such trades is already being generated and shared between the equipment, farmer, equipment manufacturer, and even some farm advisers. The challenge is to limit it to the people who the farmer chooses to share it with.

That is where systems like Heupel’s may shine. Rather than transmitting the farm data to a third party, it remains on the incorporated laptop.

Heupel also notes there are software differences between equipment lines. This makes sharing of data between equipment brands on farm difficult if not impossible. This then would require a third party to analyze the data before returning the accumulated data to the farmer at a cost.

Heupel is currently addressing this issue and has already developed a bridge which allows Lexion and JD equipment to understand and utilize the data generated by each other.

Farmobile is a U.S. farm data technology startup which is also offering farmers an alternative to data collection and storage by the major manufacturers. It provides a plug-in module which constantly monitors machine performance. It offers more monitoring parameters than found on the major equipment lines. Furthermore, all data is encoded in a personalized electronic farm record which only the farmer can access.

Most interesting, Farmobile is currently assessing sales opportunities for farm data. In the future, farmers who use Farmobile for data collection may be able to actually sell any or all of their data privately to a third party. At this point, the market value of real-time farm data is unknown, but at least one farmer is involved in the beta testing and believes there is the potential of a solid revenue stream.

Farmobile offers its services in Canada and has a number of prairie farmers testing its module.

Granular is another technology startup which provides farmers with greater control over their data. It is also focusing on whole farm management with the data rather than strictly agronomic and production.

Granular is also pursuing the marketability of farm data. This is a natural progression given that the CEO of Granular, Sid Gorham, was the lead for strategy and new business development at Nielsen, the global marketing research firm for media and consumer goods.

Personally, I am astounded at farmers who are rigidly opposed to the agricultural census of Statistics Canada yet who do not even question what data their equipment is providing to manufacturers and possibly others in real time. Many farmers are still resisting 20th century collection of a mole hill of outdated information while ignoring the mountain of real-time data which their equipment is automatically sharing with private industry. Farmers need to address this issue now!

First, farmers need to understand the value of data to their farms, and they need to see why we must protect that data the same way we would protect any other asset.

Second, farmers need to realize that farm data also has value to others and could even be used against them, and it must be protected against unauthorized use.

Third, we need to agree on ownership and use of our data by any third party before allowing our data to be collected on our behalf.

Fourth, if we are unable to reach a data agreement with the company, we need to consider alternatives. This is a rapidly growing field and there are new players entering the industry.

Finally, we need to view data as potential saleable product of the farm and see if there is a market for the information. Why are we giving valuable information away when it properly belongs to us, and only to us?

Things to consider for a data contract

Dr. Joan Archer, a partner in the food and agri­ business division of the international law firm Husch Blackwell suggested the following points to consider when drawing up a contract for protecting precision agriculture data;

  • Who “owns” the data (farmer, landowner, service provider(s))?
  • Who “owns” collective data?
  • What types of data are covered (soil, weather, applications, pests, water flows, genetics, etc.)?
  • What data can and can’t be used, and in what circumstances can data be withheld?
  • What data can and can’t be used for
  • Data access — what guarantees are provided?
  • What data can and can’t be shared and with whom (NDAs, subpoenas and related notice provisions)?
  • Term and termination rights
  • What happens to data upon termination?
  • Can data be transferred?
  • Risks/indemnities — who assumes liability for mistakes, data breach or release, data corruption and error, misuse (like market manipulation) etc.?
  • Equipment obligations — what is needed to handle data?
  • Privacy/security protection obligations
  • Licenses needed for software/who owns software downloads/NDAs associated with software? • Who is responsible for any regulatory/compliance issues?
  • Data­stream due diligence obligations — check other agreements
  • Permissibility of data co­op participation • Who is responsible for obtaining and maintaining records on any certifications, such as UAS pilot certifications?
  • Trademark licenses
  • The potential impact of mergers and acquisitions

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