Letters to the Editor

The Future of Farming: Data Innovation for a Sustainable Future

The views expressed are those of the individual authors and not necessarily those of DTN, its management or employees.


To the Editor:

Agriculture data is an important tool for improving both farm production and environmental outcomes. We farmers have been tracking ag data for ages -- taking stock of what works and what doesn't. Today's tools offer the opportunity to do that with more precision and could provide even greater insights. But we need to expand the connection and use of data across regions and landscapes to better understand the effects of conservation practices on agricultural production.

At the most basic level, yield data for a field shows the results of a seed hybrid with one year of weather conditions. If I combine information from several fields and several years, I can learn more about the traits and performance of that hybrid. If information from my farm is connected with information from other farmers, we gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of how a hybrid responds to different conditions, including the conservation practices employed.â?¯

With the expansion of precision agriculture technology, more datasets are being collected and generated by American farmers and ranchers. This data presents an incredible opportunity to unlock important insights that can address a broad suite of agricultural production challenges, including how to increase production intensity, manage risk to extreme weather events, and ensure the success of rural communities. There is growing evidence that farmers who implement conservation practices may be able to reduce their risk in both extreme wet and dry conditions, but more research is needed to better understand these dynamics. In order to unlock the power of agriculture data for better on-farm decision making, several key actions need to happen.

First, the USDA needs to better understand their data assets, what can be done to advance dataset interoperability, and find ways to better share data between USDA agencies and with researchers to answer key questions about the connection between conservation practices and agricultural risk. As the former undersecretary of farm production and conservation at USDA, I helped lay the groundwork to support farmers managing their risk while protecting farm data privacy and improving conservation outcomes on their farms. During my tenure, USDA partnered with AGree, the University of Illinois and other researchers through the Conservation and Crop Insurance Research Pilot to more fully understand how the use of cover crops impact risk. The results of this research should be available soon; insights from this work should inform USDA policy.

Second, data systems that work for farmers need to be created. Farmers deserve better information about conservation and farm management and to have access to more streamlined data reporting systems for USDA programs. Risk management innovations require better data collection and utilization in order to figure out what practices work, where, and in what combination. However, data collection systems should reduce, rather than increase, the burden of collecting and reporting data, and producers should be able to access and utilize the insights produced from research using their data. Sharing the results of analysis about the connection between conservation practices and risk is critical for farmers to benefit from this research.

Finally, partnerships between government, academia, nonprofits, and the private sector for data sharing and expertise exchange must be created. No one sector has all the datasets, expertise, or resources to answer questions about conservation practices and farm risk. We have to work together. This is challenging in an era of big data, where datasets are valuable and incentives for data sharing can be difficult to identify. Data innovation can inform public policy, provide usable information to farmers, and help the private sector develop better tools, products, and services.

Farmer's needs should be at the forefront of each of these efforts. Farmers are working the land and providing their data; innovations in the use and sharing of ag data will shape the future of their farming operations. It is critical that farmers' privacy is protected, they receive benefits generated by the data, and they are engaged in conversations about how ag data is collected, shared, and utilized.

If you agree with these ideas, I encourage you to share them with your neighbors, your crop insurance agent, and your lender. Changing how we manage our agriculture data starts by talking about it and developing a shared vision for agriculture. Together, we can improve farm production, reduce agricultural risk, and continue the American tradition of innovation through better collection, sharing, and analysis of agriculture data.

Bill Northey, a fourth-generation Iowa farmer, served as undersecretary for farm production and conservation at USDA from 2018-2020. He is a former secretary of agriculture of Iowa and a past president of the National Corn Growers Association.


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