The land grab for farm data

The land grab for farm data

The land grab for farm data

Farmers are adopting smart-sensor technologies and connected farm equipment more quickly than ever, stretching each season to eke out greater yield from finite acreage.

This rise in so-called precision agriculture has precipitated a massive influx in unstructured “bushels to bytes” farm data, creating new opportunities for an industry that has previously operated solely in the physical realm.

From government agencies to commodity traders, hedge funds, biotech companies and, of course, seed, chemical and fertilizer manufacturers, everyone wants a piece of the “internet of farming,” as evidenced here and here.

Specifically, ownership and control of agronomic and equipment data is understood to have dramatic escalating value. Which seed varieties were the most successful and where? Which plant populations performed best? Whose recommendations (e.g. nitrogen programs) outperformed their peers?

Which input datasets are used for these recommendations, how were they acquired and are they standardized and accessible? How are the big companies actually using the data? Who has access, how long have they been acquiring it and how long do they keep it? Which documents did I sign to give them access?

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Make no mistake, the ambiguity around the value of this data is intentional. Nobody wants to initiate paying for something that has always been free.

Regrettably, those who least understand the true value of the data produced are farmers themselves. Our neighbors around the country give their data away for a pittance, or worse. Yet, data is one of the most valuable things farmers harvest.

There’s no doubt that there is confusion around the “hard value” of data. Farmers tell me, “Look, I know that my data has value because everyone wants it. The part that frustrates me is that companies want my data in return for some undefined ‘value.’ Meanwhile they are often upselling me for additional services that would not exist without my data.”

Farmers know in theory that it’s important to collect data, and they do record some of it season by season.

Farmers, remember, were part of the very first wave of GPS adopters (long before Google Maps and car navigation systems), and continue to live and work at the forefront of technology in ways that surprise most Americans — who are unfamiliar with modern agriculture.

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Although farmers are, in many cases, adopting leading-edge “precision ag” technology, the value remains elusive and difficult to quantify. Datasets fill up their local hard drives and thumb drives, but, at the end of the day, farmers are not hard-core technologists or data scientists, and don’t intend to be — they already have a full-time job with plenty to do.

But there’s a naive sense among farmers that the digital revolution is in its early days, and that there is plenty of time to figure things out. It’s a “wait and see” mentality.

Against this backdrop, big companies are already using farmers’ data with and without permission, blurring the legal lines between ownership and control and taking advantage of the fact that they aren’t being held accountable. Yet.

The recent, hotly debated John Deere and Monsanto agreement is just one example of how quickly things are changing.

Monsanto entered the ag-connectivity world in 2012 when it acquired privately held Precision Planting in a deal valued up to $250 million.

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