September 18, 2014

The battle is on to capture big data! Are your competitors getting there ahead of you? And how do farmers feel about it?

By Tim Kerstein, Director of Solutions Development, Entira Inc.

Technology is infiltrating agriculture at breakneck speed. Acquiring and learning how to use it is not the hard part—the real challenge lies in what the industry calls “big data,” and more specifically what to do with it, who owns it, and how to maintain privacy and control over it.

Every new system and device is generating data that gives manufacturers a more comprehensive customer profile than they’ve ever had before. They can see the farmer’s alliances. What he’s planting. Where he’s planting it. What he’s applying to it. And the yields he is getting. In many ways, a supplier knows more about a farmer than he knows about himself. All of this is valuable information to a lot of players; but who all has access to that … and who should have access?

Related: Precision Agriculture and Big Data: Charting the Oceans of Opportunity

Bigger, Better, Faster

The race continues to see who can get the most and best information, and who can get it the fastest. In precision agriculture, it’s all about “bigger, better, faster.” Farmers get on board fairly easily, lured by the promise of more efficiency and more detailed information they can use to manage the operation. When they see how a product can boost their productivity and provide strong value for the investment, it’s a no brainer.

Ag companies are leveraging advances and alliances to own every step of the process. They know information is power. And they know that in the race for information, more has to be better.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags is one technology being used by big seed companies, to varying degrees, to collect data. Those “smart labels” have long been used on consumer merchandise and embedded in cattle as a tracking tool. But now, RFID readers on the planter is where the greatest potential of RFID tracking is realized, giving manufacturers a very intimate and detailed view of what’s going on in an individual field. When a manufacturer knows the what, when, where and how seed is planted, they can then integrate that information with weather data and satellite imagery to predict the crop needs and ROI for nitrogen, fungicides, insecticides, etc. They can also predict final yield at the field level.

Those can all be very positive events for farmers. But who’s able to do this right now—what companies can gather and manage data at that level? Is it in farmers' best interests for those companies to have access to all of that data? Who owns the data—is it the farmers who operate the equipment and manage the land, or the companies that provide/subsidize the purchase of the equipment? How should the companies be allowed to use the data?

The Question of Ownership

If you’ve ever taken the time to read Google’s privacy terms, you’ll see the statements paint a telling image of the wide-ranging access of data in our everyday lives. Here’s an excerpt:

"When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

In all facets of the world today, big data is flowing in and out of hands that can use it to their benefit. This points again to the question of data ownership. As farm data is collected, how do other manufacturers/suppliers get access to it? Will farmers have to pay the companies that gather the data to get it back if they need to share it with another party? And how will they feel about that?

Sustaining Trust

Entira’s multi-client studies in the area of precision agriculture have given us critical insight into grower’s attitudes toward sharing data and their level of trust with companies and suppliers. When it comes to the question of data ownership, are we cutting off our nose to spite our face—are we moving too fast without enough thought to the inadvertent turmoil it could create in the industry? 

The pace we’re on in agriculture is clearly advantageous for the industry as a whole, but it’s important to remember that information changes the balance of power in decision making and in the relationship between farmers and the ag companies they do business with. True, the farmer of today may not be as conservative as the farmer of 10 years ago, but privacy is still an important factor. Farmers could become wary if they feel they’re losing their valued independence and giving up control over doing things their own way. In the end, farmers have to decide if the higher yields from “opening up their books” are worth the exposure. On the other hand, ag companies need to evaluate whether it matters to them what the customer is willing to share vs. what they’re not willing to share. Is having that information so vital that you’d be willing to sacrifice the relationship if the customer decides to walk away instead of giving up the data?

Getting a handle on our own “terms of use” will help ensure we maintain positive, trusting relationships through the processes of the information age. We want to prevent lags in production that could result from farmers rejecting the products that are best for them, simply because they’re reluctant to share information.

So as we continue generating more and more data, it seems there are more questions than answers about how to wrangle big data. As it pertains to grower reporting, who will dictate the terms—will it be the farmer? The supplier? And ultimately, who owns the data? What are the usage regulations? Are suppliers justified in getting access to this information?

We’re passionate about this issue at Entira, and would welcome the opportunity to visit with you. We're preparing to launch “Precision Agriculture and Big Data: Charting the Oceans of Opportunity,” a new multi-client study to examine the impact of big data and the leaders, influencers, alignments and market potential of precision agriculture advancements. Contact me if you’d like to learn more or discuss how big data factors into your strategy.