Big Data: Chewing on the tough questions

By Bruce Knight

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Who's got a right to data that's available about the land you own or the land you rent?  How much control do you have over that data, and how much do you want to restrict information related to your operation, your current plans, your planting history, your strategies for the future?

Big data has become a big topic among commodity growers, and there are lots of questions, but no easy answers.  We're moving into a whole new level of integrating very specific information-historical and predictive weather patterns, soils, agronomics, seed varieties and yields, precision management information-that will help take us to the next level in production management, at the field rather than the farm level.  But there are questions that accompany new technologies and data integration.

Lets Talk Food

Is Big Brother watching you?  Or major agricultural companies?  Or just the grower across the fence who's got his own eye on that land you've been renting for the past five years?

Some data is public-like the soil surveys, produced at taxpayers' expense and freely available to the public.  Other data may be proprietary or its ownership unclear.  Laws governing these types of data are limited.

I find producers taking a variety of positions.  Some growers want to establish an exclusive relationship with one of the big players like DuPont or Monsanto because they believe those who follow the lead of the major agricultural companies will be able to stay on top of things and shift quickly when they need to.  Others are willing to work with a variety of sources.  Many are uncertain about the implications of all the information that is now available-from someone-on a field-by-field basis.

I've heard folks say, “Thank goodness, there's someone out there who can help me sort out all this information and make sense out of it for my farm.”  A few have said, “Farming's becoming too complicated; I'm out.”  Then there are those who think, “This whole data thing goes against my nature as an independent farmer; I don't want other folks knowing that much about my business or being so deeply involved in my day-to-day operation.”  Or those who believe, “I'll align with one of the big guys, and then I'll have a competitive advantage.”

Regardless of which position you take, increasingly specific data is available today on almost every plot of arable land in the U.S.  It's out there, in one databank or another.  But who does it belong to, and who should have access to it?

Here are some of the sticky questions I've heard farmers wrestling with:  What if my competitor down the road takes over renting land I've been renting.  Does data about that land belong to me as the renter or to the owner?  Does that data automatically move to the new renter as land changes hands?

Senator Pat Roberts used to define a large farmer as “anyone who has one acre more of land than I do.”  In other words, it's all in the eyes of the beholder.

Big data may break the same way.  If you can obtain the data, and if you find it gives you a competitive advantage, you're glad that information is available.  On the other hand, if someone else has access to the data, and you don't, you won't be pleased with the situation.

Where do you stand, and why?  These are questions we all need to give some thought to as we seek to operate with sustained intensification, maximizing our yields while minimizing our use of resources.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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