Zeroes and ones are nearly as important to modern agriculture as seeds and acres. Keeping those digits private is a never-ending battle.
While farmers have undoubtedly benefited from the wonders of precision data capture, the technology carries with it some vulnerabilities.
“They should have concerns,” said Stuart Birrell, a professor of agricultural engineering at Iowa State University.
Birrell said there is a struggle for dominance in ag data, threatening to move into the space long held by smaller entities.
“You have a little bit of a fight between the seed company and the tractor company,” he said.
“On one side you have the seed companies and chemical companies, which are basically the same now. They have all of the knowledge in terms of what is the potential for the seed information. They don’t have the knowledge of what is out in the field in terms of planting. The tractor manufacturers are collecting that data.”
Birrell said further tightening of the information stream could have the effect of infringing on cooperatives and pushing independent consultants out.
“That basically would threaten their livelihoods to a certain extent,” he said. “It would become one-stop shopping. ‘We will do the analysis for you. And we know your neighbors’ data so we can give you better prescriptions maps because we have a bigger sample.’”
Farmers may be caught in the middle, struggling to retain ownership of data on their farms.
“It’s definitely a concern,” said Doug Cropp, a grain merchandiser with Champaign-based Premier Cooperative. “Some of the large companies and startups with a lot of money behind them have a lot of data, and they are trying to leverage that to get at the farm level. They’re trying to capture all that and we’re trying to be protective of that because it’s (farmers’) data, not someone else’s data. We don’t share that with anybody.”
The European Union has addressed the issue with implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation in 2018. The law covers a broad range of commerce, including cellphones, internet and other entities that collect data from users. While only EU countries are bound by the law, its core values have been adopted by others.
Agricultural equipment manufacturer AGCO is among companies that point to their compliance with GDPR guidelines as well as other government-guaranteed protections.
“It is important to point out that AGCO’s data collection and usage practices universally adhere to GDPR and California laws in all markets even though these regulations typically go beyond most other requirements,” said company spokesman Bob Blakely. “AGCO agrees that the customer owns any information and data about the machine that is available through these applications.”
Seed and chemical company Bayer did not have experts available to discuss the topic, but did respond that the company collects data to help improve products and bring value to customers.
“We do not share customer data with third parties without clear customer consent,” Bayer said in a statement to IFT. “We provide a clear view of how and why data is used, and how it is protected.”
Birrell said sellers of iron and chemicals have designs to be the end-all for farm operations. He sees it as an attempt at vertical integration.
“That’s exactly what it is,” he said. “You are locked into one supplier or manufacturer at that point. It would be a monopoly. They want to become more than just an equipment manufacturer and supplier. Previously for chemicals, the farmers relied on the co-ops and in some cases outside consultants. Equipment manufacturers see a financial stream so they can sell you knowledge and data analysis systems to make the maps.”
Cropp said many of the cooperatives’ farmer-members have raised concerns about data ownership, though he is optimistic because the issue has been in the forefront lately.
“There have been some concerns because of things that have happened over the past several years, when some of the data has gotten out that should have been protected,” he said. “I think things have gotten more secure. Security of the data is the most important thing.”