Cybersecurity and Ag - 1

Cybercriminals Take Aim at America's Food Supply

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
High-tech attackers, hiding behind their computer screens, see U.S. agriculture as a high-value target. (DTN/Progressive Farmer illustration: Getty Images/Brent Warren/Barry Falkner)

You'll never see their faces, but high-tech criminals lurk far beyond the farmgate. Their intent is to cause chaos and financial loss for America's farmers and ranchers. The risk has only heightened as agriculture becomes increasingly digitally interconnected with the country's food supply and transportation networks.

Agriculture was reminded of that ever-present threat of cyberattack this week when NEW Cooperative in Fort Dodge, Iowa, confirmed Monday it had been hit with a ransomware attack that affected the grain cooperative's operations, which include 60 elevator locations across north-central and western Iowa. For the latest on that story, see….

"These attackers used to go after the Amazons and banking institutions of the world, but now they are looking at different companies, specifically those in agriculture and energy," says Sarah Engstrom, chief information security officer and vice president of IT security, productivity and privacy for CHS.

Engstrom is in the IT trenches every day for CHS, a diversified and global agribusiness cooperative organized in 1929, and headquartered in Minnesota. She did not shy away when asked to talk about the challenges large entities like CHS face from cyberattackers.

"They are looking for targets they believe are more prone to caving under an attack, or to being exploited and not having the proper security resources in place," she says. "We are seeing it, and we are hearing of smaller companies getting pummeled with cyberattacks and ransomware."

Fighting cybercrime isn't as simple as installing a new lock and chain. Cybercriminals are high-tech crooks, constantly changing the tools of their trade. It's far from a new line of work.

Considered the first electronic bank robbery by many in law enforcement, Russian computer programmers working out of St. Petersburg, hacked into the systems of a major U.S. bank in 1994, and started skimming money. The group made away with more than $10 million before the bank became aware of the intrusion.

In upcoming weeks, DTN/Progressive Farmer is posting a special series called Cybersecurity and Ag to examine the threat cyberattackers pose to agriculture and explore what farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses can do to protect themselves from these high-tech criminals.


Today, for many in IT, a data breach has become more of a "when" than a "what if" scenario. According to the FBI's 2020 Internet Crime Report, the agency received 791,790 cybercrime complaints in 2020, with losses of more than $4.1 billion. That is a 69% increase from year-earlier levels. The FBI reports attackers are increasingly using tools like machine learning, artificial intelligence and even 5G mobile networks to ramp up offenses.

The website Gearbrain, which tracks data breaches and hacks, reported that in the first quarter of 2021, the number of people impacted by data breaches climbed 564% compared to year-ago levels. The number of compromised companies in the U.S. were up 12% over that same period. The report says the "rise in supply chain attacks is troubling." Some IT specialists believe one reason for the increase has been the increase in employees working from home, where they are not always connected to company computer networks.

One of the most public breaches so far this year has been against JBS USA, a processor responsible for production of about one-fifth of this nation's meat supply. The company was forced to halt slaughter operations in 13 meat processing plants, and reported it paid $11 million to hackers to regain control of its systems. This happened despite reports from JBS USA that it spends more than $200 million annually on IT and employs more than 850 IT specialists around the world.


Editor's Note: This is the first of the stories in our special Cybersecurity and Ag series. Next in the series: A look at how agribusinesses are preparing for threats posed by hackers, and the questions farmers and ranchers need to ask those they share data with.

Victoria Myers can be reached at

Follow her on Twitter @myersPF

Victoria Myers