The original "plow that broke the plains" enabled American farms
to grow massive swathes of wheat and corn with its lightness and
durability. The modern machines are using data to take another giant
step in efficiency and output.
But as big agricultural companies pour money into data storage and
analytics tools that aim to turn micro detail on crops and
furrow-by-furrow weather into more grain for less pain, concerns are
growing about how the data might be used and how secure such a gold
mine for traders is.
Now, at an unprecedented meeting on Thursday, the national
independent farmers' group the American Farm Bureau Federation
(AFBF) will try to hammer out guidelines with Deere and fellow
industry heavyweights such as Monsanto <MON.N> and DuPont Pioneer
<DD.N> — which together control nearly three-quarters of the U.S.
corn seed market.
"Virtually every company says it will never share, sell or use the
data in a market-distorting way — but we would rather verify than
trust," farmer Brian Marshall of the AFBF told the U.S. House
Committee on Small Business in February.
The data would be a gold mine to traders in commodity markets and
could influence farmland values.
While there are no documented instances so far of data being
misused, lengthy contracts packed with open-ended language and
differing from one supplier to the next are fueling mistrust.
Privacy and security concerns surrounding data gathering are not
confined to agriculture. Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally
has called for U.S. legislation and guidelines to protect drivers'
privacy as more vehicles are connected to the Internet.
While only around 14 percent of farmers use this kind of precision
agriculture technology at the moment, its popularity is expected to
soar over the coming years.
"Now is the time to step in and make sure that some of the concerns
we have get answered," said Mary Kay Thatcher, a senior director at
WHO REALLY OWNS THE DATA?
Companies like Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and tractor giant John Deere
maintain that data produced on the farm by a farmer belongs to that
But property guidelines surrounding data, which can be copied,
aggregated and transmitted at lightning speed, are not as simple as
John Deere's enterprise privacy statement, tucked away on its
shows that the company can collect data on Deere equipment or any
devices connected to it such as an iPad, unless the farmer opts out.
The list of the company's uses for that information includes
customer service and marketing, but also "analytics." And data
gathered by its machines can be retained by Deere indefinitely.
DuPont Pioneer says anonymized data, including yield and products
used as well as GPS location information, can be used and disclosed
by the company "for any purpose."
[to top of second column]
FOCUS ON FARMERS
For now, the core value of farm data collected lies in precision
planting, farm management and maintenance services sold to farmers.
But big agricultural companies see big profits ahead.
has said precision services and its "intelligent solutions group"
would be a major piece of doubling its size from a $25 billion
company in 2010 to a $50 billion company by 2018.
Monsanto underscored its devotion to farm data analytics when it
bought weather data-mining company the Climate Corporation in
October, describing it as its "entry ticket into a $20 billion
The companies insist their goals are simply to help farmers and
point out it is not worth their while to sow distrust.
"It's really important that we earn the trust of the farmer. Doing
anything that's malicious or that is low integrity is certainly not
a good way to run a business," said Climate Corporation Chief
Executive Officer David Friedberg.
But for a commodities trader or investment bank, a broad pool of
real-time data about how many acres of soybeans U.S. farmers planted
or whether corn yields in Iowa were above expectations could be a
Already, feedback from crop tours organized to inspect the harvests
are keenly watched and can move markets.
And the concern is that a company might be enticed to venture beyond
agronomic services, given that a public company must put its
shareholders — and therefore profits — first.
Farmers are keen to know if they would get a share too.
"I want to know if my data is going towards market intelligence or
if it's strictly being used for agronomic reasons. If it's market
intelligence, I'd like to be compensated for it," said Mark Kenney,
a 34-year-old corn and soybean farmer in Nevada, Iowa.
"I'm not going to take them at their word. I'd like to see some sort
of legal protections. I don't want my data going somewhere it's not
supposed to go."
(Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Cynthia Osterman)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.