Big Data and the Farm

A farm near Klingerstown, Pa.
Imagine a world where seeds are automatically planted and crops email you when they need water. That world is already possible and the technologies behind it are gaining popularity.

In the past few years, the larger agribusiness companies, such as Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, started offering data analysis and prescriptive planting solutions to farmers. Their goal is to increase annual yield on the same amount of land by changing planting practices.

Some farmers use planters equipped with GPS that automatically steer themselves in a straight line, while monitoring their progress on iPads. Tools attached to tractors already collect data about their land, which can then be analyzed and used to plan for the following planting season. This process of analysis can be daunting with data about hundreds of acres of land.

Seed companies see the potential in this data and are encouraging farmers to upload it to their servers. The companies analyze the soil conditions, current seeding rates, past crop yields and other measurements. A custom planning map is created, based on the data. The map is then uploaded to a planter, which can precisely plant seed at different depths and rates, depending on its location on the map.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the technology could increase the 2014 corn harvest from an average of 160 bushels to 200. That would equal an extra $182 in revenue per acre, up from $759.

Like all great movements and advancements in technology, prescriptive planting is not without risks and controversy. Farm advocacy groups are trying to figure out what big data means for agriculture. Common fears are that private data from farms could be exploited by government agencies, sold to commodity corporations or even get stolen by agriculture activists.

In addition, farmers are worried that having access to “real time yield data” around harvest time will cause speculation in the commodities markets, before the government issues official crop-production estimates.

“We’re signing up for things without knowing what we’re giving up,” Mark Nelson, director of commodities at the Kansas Farm Bureau, said.

The American Farm Bureau, which is the nation’s largest farming organization, is leading the debate about big data. In a Farm Industry News article, Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau expressed his concerns and brought up the question of who owns farm data in the first place.

“Proprietary data collected from individual farms is valuable and should remain the property of the farmer,” Stallman said. “As innovation and technology using this data expand to provide farmers new management tools, protecting the privacy of this data is paramount.”

In addition to farmers and industry leaders, Congress is joining the conversation about big data in the agriculture industry.

“Information and data utilization is the way of the future,” Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a republican from Kansas, said. “And just as our federal government struggles with privacy concerns through records at the NSA and various health records, so too must we maintain appropriate privacy protection of individuals from corporate entitles.”

The field of agriculture is rapidly changing and blending with technology. There are many sides of the story to consider.

What is your opinion about agriculture and big data?

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