Now that farmers and the companies and consultants who support them have embraced the need for field-level data collection and have adopted myriad methods for gathering it, the industry has reached the critical juncture of figuring out what to do with all that information. That’s according to Jon Doggett, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, who spoke Wednesday on a virtual panel sponsored by AGree Economic and Environmental Risk Coalition.

“That's really the tough part,” Doggett said. But it also marks a milestone of sorts because “slowly, and then rather quickly, more and more growers started to realize that there was a use for this data.”

Early concerns around privacy have not completely gone away, but he said the improvement in the row crop economy has also created a bit of an opening for farms that some years ago were not in a position to tell their bankers they wanted to try something new or untested.

To make the best use of the large datasets, though, more research is needed and Laura Wood Peterson, executive director of the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research, said that includes developing ways to integrate scores of datasets including many that are not yet digitized — “think of all the notebooks in university desk drawers and pick-up cupholders.”

She said different kinds of data collection and interpretation could lead to different answers, so “standardizing as much as possible is really important." Once the data can be analyzed and interpreted, she said the next step is to ensure that any tools developed from the data are made available to farmers, such as through land grant universities. 

But the sheer volume of data creates its own challenges, especially within USDA.

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Steve Censky, CEO of the American Soybean Association, said when he was deputy secretary at USDA during the Trump administration, he worked on the question of how to “aggregate and pull out some of those insights that are from various databases within USDA.” It’s complicated by the way data is organized, often by agency or even specific programs, added Bill Northey, who was the USDA's undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation at the same time.

The panel supported infrastructure funding to improve rural broadband, recognizing that if farmers are unable to interact with apps and information that requires high-speed internet, then it won’t matter how sophisticated or promising the tools are. Censky said the $65 billion broadband investment in the proposed infrastructure package “could be a significant bump-up” without which rural areas might lag for decades.

Northey said his family has used data technology since the 1990s and that’s helped them refine how they farm, including adding conservation practices. He said his long-term vision would be “to share that information across many farms” and help everyone make informed decisions about practices like cover crops, nitrogen application or tillage.

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