Ag companies, USDA, discuss big data challenges

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



ARLINGTON, Va. Feb. 19, 2015-The opportunities for farm productivity and young agriculturalists are buoyed by data technology in agriculture, but challenges like wireless infrastructure and data privacy are stalling adoption, noted a speaker panel hosted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the 2015 USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum outside Washington today.

The boost in ag data technology, software and development means that the industry needs more and more talent from science, technology and math fields. “We're looking for the best of every discipline coming into ag,” said John Deere's senior vice president of Intelligent Solutions Group, Cory Reed. “What's happening in space of technology is exploding opportunities for young people.”

Monsanto Chief Technology Officer Robert Fraley said he expects 3 million jobs in agriculture to become available over next decade, and “a lot of those will be STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] jobs.”

Together we can feed the Bees"

However, “at the very top of farmers' concerns” right now is the fear that the Environmental Protection Agency could get access huge amounts to individuals' farm information, said American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Senior Director of Congressional Relations Mary Kay Thatcher.

While preventing uninvited government access to this information may always be a concern, AFBF recently launched an effort to coordinate an agreement between producers and the companies to whom they voluntarily share their data. Farmers provide the data they collect during their farm operation to companies like John Deere and Monsanto in exchange for software and analytics that allow them to use inputs with greater accuracy and boost productivity. 

In an effort to provide greater confidence for producers when they give their farm data to agricultural technology providers, seven agricultural groups, including AFBF, and six agricultural technology providers, including Monsanto and John Deere, helped form data privacy principles for the use of farm data. In November, each group and company signed the agreement, indicating their belief that several data principles should be adopted by each ATP.

The principles outlined in the agreement include that farmers own information generated on their farming operations.  However, members note that it is the responsibility of the farmer to agree upon data use and sharing with other stakeholders with an economic interest such as the tenant, landowner, cooperative, owner of the precision agriculture system hardware, and/or ATP etc. The farmer contracting with the ATP is responsible for ensuring that only the data he or she owns or has permission to use is included in the account with the ATP.

Thatcher said the contracts that companies like Monsanto and John Deere have put out in the last year have changed, “largely because of this discussion.”

She said one of the biggest issues in data technology is that every company says “the farmer owns the data,” but the farmer needs to know who has access to that data--whether it's the landowner, cooperative, or another entity.

Reed said Deere, like many large agricultural technology providers, is rapidly extending beyond selling top quality machines to providing full operation systems that use farm data to boost customers' productivity. 

“We're moving from individual products and machines to quality of systems delivered on their farms,” he said. “In addition to bigger, faster, stronger, our producers have expectations about ‘easier, smarter, and more precise.'”

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked if the same benefits of big data technology that are obvious for commercial-sized operations can be made to smaller and organic farmers.

“It's really hard for me to see how it doesn't drive consolidation in the agriculture industry, and much faster than we've seen it,” Thatcher said. But, “whether we like it or not, big data is here to stay.”

She said some smaller farmers could take advantage of the technology “and use it to go to landlords and get more land.”

Reed said one of the main challenges for Deere is to make the technology easier to integrate at any farm size. The increasing need to improve-and measure-water quality is one area where data tools can be used across the board. 

One challenge includes “gaps” in the country's telecommunications infrastructure, which an area “government needs to step in” when the private sector can't, Vilsack said.

Thatcher noted that adopting data technology may become a necessity to meet laws like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed last year in California. 

“I think you'd get a lot of people saying they can't meet that new mandate without that data,” she said.

The law requires that most of the groundwater basins in California, especially in the Central Valley, will need to have plans in place by 2020 to correct overdraft conditions and reach sustainability by 2040.

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