Weighing Big Data

Experts, Ag Officials See Benefits of Big Data, Acknowledge Need to Address Concerns

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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The Open Ag Data Alliance sets standards about how data can move freely from one data storage cloud to another. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer file photo by Jim Patrico)

OMAHA (DTN) -- While the ag industry continues to debate who should have access to farm data, and how much farmers, agribusinesses and government get to look at and share that data, Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson shared another worry during a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee Wednesday: That even terabytes of real farm data won't sway environmental groups bent on removing modern technologies from agriculture, and in fact could create information that would be used against farmers.

"We've just got this terrible fight going on," the Minnesota congressman said. "We are making huge progress in agriculture in terms of developing technology and so forth. But, frankly, in the environmental area, these people are trying to go back 200 years. "What they're pushing is no technology -- that it's gotta be natural. We've got a fight going on over buffer zone strips (in Minnesota) when the best thing we could do is tile the land and they're fighting us on that.

A number of data industry representatives testified Wednesday on the work they're doing to not only collect data, but to assure farmers and others that individual pieces of that collected data remain anonymous.

Shannon L. Ferrell, associate professor and faculty teaching fellow in the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics, said it will take time to educate farmers about what data collection means for their operations.

Farmers and ranchers have been hesitant to share data at all, he said. That's because of the Environmental Protection Agency's recent release of personal information on concentrated animal feeding operation owners to environmental groups a couple of years ago, as well as the Environmental Working Group's publishing of farmers' government subsidy data.

To sell producers on the potential farm benefits of data sharing will take time, Farrell said. Correctly done, data sharing could aid farmers in more effectively curbing environmental issues such as reducing nutrient runoff.

Ferrell said current incentive-based conservation approaches have made steps toward better environmental protection, but it is hard to accurately account for how individual farm actions help or hinder a region's environmental health.

"But we have a way of giving the incentive-based approach real teeth if we can have a level of regional coordination that allows farmers to do much better farm-level nutrients management that in turn provides regional results. That's one of the real exciting benefits (big data) has for environmental compliance for agriculture."

Ferrell suggested that regional agriculture hubs, where farmers in a given geographical region share field-level data about all aspects of production, could be used to help all producers in a region cut nutrient runoff.

"That's tempered a bit by their trepidation that they don't really understand the mechanics of how that works and we're kind of inherently private," Farrell said.


Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation, testified that ag technology is proven to enable farmers to make better decisions in the field about where and when to apply fertilizer, for example.

"It cuts our use of inputs in a very real sense," he said. "Now have ability to put any input to a place in a field. I use less."

Peterson replied, "We've got a lot of folks in the environmental community who do not want to recognize this. That's the problem. I don't know what we do to bring those people into the 21st century, but that's a whole other deal."

Ferrell is less concerned about government collections of farm data being used against farmers.

"When we're talking about the aggregation technologies at use, we see that the aggregation actually protects anonymity of the individual producer.

"I think their concerns are very understandable and well-founded, but I think for the most part we can address those through education. I think the more farmers and ranchers understand the mechanics of how data is shared and analyzed, they can see a lot of those concerns don't have to be concerns for them."

Farrell said for big data to work "it's gotta be big."

Mike Stern, president and chief operating officer of the Climate Corporation, said efforts are being made across the country to make data sharing systems secure for those who provide data.

"It goes back to the idea a producer owns data and there needs to be standards," he said.

The Open Ag Data Alliance, for example, sets standards about how data can move freely from one data storage cloud to another. One of the issues farmers are having is that using multiple, different, brands of data collection systems on the farm means systems can't communicate with each other. If various data sets can't be aggregated, it's difficult to draw conclusions.

"There are a lot of interesting things happening with big data and agriculture," Peterson said. "They all have the potential to benefit not just the farmer but consumers and the economy as a whole. Adopting new technologies can make farming more efficient -- enabling farmers to make wise use of inputs and keeping their costs low. There are concerns about these advances when it comes to privacy, and I think this is something we're going to have to keep an eye on."

Matt Rushing, vice president of advanced technology solutions product line for AGCO Corp., told the committee farmers are waiting to see the benefits of data sharing.

"Aside from technical barriers, farmers must perceive the value of 'big data' in their operations," he said.

"Like in other industries going through a similar 'big data revolution,' stakeholders must see to believe. Adoption of precision farming tools and services is driving the realization of data benefits and return on investment. Agricultural equipment and service providers must continue to demonstrate the value of data -- make it tangible across the wide variety of operations that exist."

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

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Todd Neeley