Farmer Information May Have $1B Value

Industry Lacks Common Interface to Collect

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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The agriculture industry may be sitting on a $1 billion gold mine with the data it generates. (Photo by Jim Patrico)

OMAHA (DTN) -- In times of lower commodity prices and higher input costs, agriculture data's potential $1 billion revenue stream for farmers would be a welcome new market, but a number of witnesses told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Tuesday, that the world of ag data collection and sharing has a ways to go to achieve maturity.

While the potential is there for farmers to sell data to a wide variety of customers in all segments of agriculture and beyond, right now there's no standardized way to collect and aggregate the data to make it useful while still protecting producers' rights.

Gypsum, Kansas, wheat farmer Justin Knopf, vice president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, told the committee the data he collects on his farm has been valuable in making good decisions.

"Data is all around us, and there is value in it all," he said.

"While a record of Google searches and websites visited may be useless history to me, analysts and marketers see valuable information that allows them to adjust the content they create. The same, of course, is true in agriculture. While some may see a jargon-filled spreadsheet or just a bunch of various colors on a field map, I see ways to maximize efficiency in my operation, both for my pocketbook, as well as for the land that provides the livelihood of my family."

Data collection, processing and using it to improve decision making has become a core competency for many farmers, Knopf said. On his operation, data availability has allowed him to make improved management decisions.

DATA MARKET

Jason G. Tatge, co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Farmobile, an agriculture technology start-up based in Kansas that turns farmer data into a commodity, and shares the revenue with producers, said efforts to monetize farmer data are just beginning to scratch the surface.

"There is a market to put together data to understand best-management practices, for example," he said. "That is how we can create a revenue stream that companies could easily change their marketing strategies."

Tatge said buyers of that data include analytics companies, insurance and re-insurance providers, equipment manufacturers and others.

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There are a number of issues preventing such an industry from growing, he said. The vast majority of data generated from farm fields is never collected.

"Once a person buys data, another wants to buy," Tatge said. "The problem is now we don't have enough data. Eighty percent of data generated in cabs today does not make it out of the cab. The agriculture industry lacks a common interface to be able to get data out of the cab."

DATA ON THE FARM

Knopf said there are three main types of data he uses on his farm.

That includes micro data he collects and produces that is specific to his farm. Service provider data specific to his farm is provided to Knopf by a variety of service partners. There is macro data the farm provides to others, and in return, the farm receives information about what is happening in the industry on a larger scale.

"As on many farms, our seeding, spraying and harvesting equipment all has hardware and software that measures and records spatially what is being done or happening in the field," Knopf said. "Performing on-farm research with sound scientific and statistical principles is one way we use this technology."

For example, he said he's able to quantify how cover crops affect crop yields, which has led to a broader adoption of practices.

"We utilize satellite imagery as a way to help us identify management zones within a field and predict yield variability," he said. "These management zones allow us to modify our seeding rates based on the productivity of the land, which lowers our seed cost on acres that are less productive."

Knopf's farm uses zone soil sampling to quantify soil fertility levels in differing areas of the field. This allows the farm to fertilize based on specific soil conditions and fertility levels.

All of that data may have a market value.

"A farmer doesn't have time to manage all this data," he said.

Shannon L. Ferrell, associate professor in the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics, said the application of big data to agricultural production has the potential to improve profitability and manage risks.

"The current technological, economic and legal environments raise issues about how the value of agricultural data will be captured among the agricultural producers generating the data and the agricultural technology providers aggregating it," he said in written testimony.

"Producers receiving what they deem to be sufficient value for their data contributions is critical as a potential gateway issue for making those contributions; without large, robust participation in agricultural data systems, such systems will fail to reach their full potential. Thus, addressing the concerns of agricultural producers with respect to their rights in data, the value it creates and their privacy if they choose to share their information is vital to see that the agricultural industry collectively maximizes the value of these data technologies."

Ferrell said farmers often raise concerns about who owns the data collected.

"There are no clear answers in the current intellectual property framework," he said.

"However, the question of agricultural data ownership may not be as important as ensuring farmers always have access to their data, can receive value from its use and can feel comfortable with the level of privacy -- or lack thereof -- that can be afforded to those participating in big data platforms."

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

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Todd Neeley