Farm Bureau to Discuss 'Big Data'

By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) — The American Farm Bureau Federation planned to meet Thursday in Kansas City to discuss one of the most perplexing opportunities and problems in agriculture today: "big data."

Big data is the collection and use of information from farmers and its manipulation into prescriptions that can help farmers be more efficient, but could also compromise their privacy.

Farm Bureau has invited about 35 representatives of farmers and the companies offering these services to meet, because farmers have been calling Farm Bureau for advice on how to handle the situation since last summer, Mary Kay Thatcher, Farm Bureau’s senior director of congressional relations, told the North American Agricultural Journalists on Monday.

Thursday’s meeting is not open to reporters, and Thatcher said she did not know what the result would be. But she said she expected there would be some statement issued afterward, and also said she hopes the group can reach some consensus on how to proceed.

"We are really excited about the technology," Thatcher said, referring to the prospect of combining a farmer’s individual data on planting, inputs and harvesting with data about what others are doing and the prescriptions that could come from it to help individuals manage their farms.

But she added, "We are concerned about privacy, about security."

Farmers are already worried about the Environmental Protection Agency getting hold of their data, but this situation is more complicated because a range of private companies could gain access to the information, even though the companies offering the services say they will not share it or share it only in limited ways.

Farm Bureau as an organization believes that the individual farmer’s data should remain the farmer’s property, and the group took that position at its annual meeting in January.

Farm Bureau is not certain even it has a handle on the issue at this point, Thatcher told the crop insurance industry at its annual meeting in Phoenix early this year.

"We are not even skimming the surface yet" on the many complicated issues that are raised when companies such as Monsanto and John Deere ask farmers to provide detailed information about planting practices and use of chemicals, Thatcher said in a Feb. 6 speech to the annual meeting of the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau.

"Prescription agriculture is to the agriculture industry what biotechnology was the past 20 years," Thatcher said. But she added that it is important that farmers read the fine print and understand the privacy issues that surround release of their data and that some kind of system be developed to set guidelines or regulations for the use of the information.

"Just as you forfeit ownership of data in a smartphone, you may forfeit your privacy with an ag tech provider," she said.

Thatcher also said farmers would be wise not to have too much confidence in statements from companies that say they will "anonymize" the collected data and say that privacy will be protected.

She cited the case of former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a Republican, who assured the people of his state that their medical records were secure, only to have a graduate student gain access to his medical records in a database by using his birth date and ZIP code and verifying them with a cross-reference to voter-registration records.

Among the issues farmers are asking Farm Bureau officials, Thatcher said, is whether they should give John Deere and Monsanto, which offer competing services, their data. Some farmers have said they are more comfortable giving the data to John Deere than to Monsanto, she said.

One question that has come up is whether a farmer who uses Monsanto seed and provides data to that company can get the data back from Monsanto if he switches to a DuPont Pioneer seed.

"The answer seems to be no," Thatcher said.

An official with the Climate Corporation, a San Francisco-based data and crop insurance company recently bought by Monsanto, said at the Commodity Classic meeting this winter that it will operate separately and that farmers can provide it information on all the seeds whether they are Monsanto or not.

But Thatcher told the agricultural journalists that farmers may still be concerned that the information might be shared with Monsanto.

She said some companies have told Farm Bureau that they will share data "within the family of companies" that they do business with. But Thatcher said she wonders if companies will share data with third parties with which it has contracts.

Purdue University is setting up its own system to collect data and provide prescriptions, but Thatcher said Farm Bureau is nervous that a system located at a land-grant college could be subject to federal Freedom of Information Act requests.

Thatcher said "the third rail" is a proposal that the recipient to which the data would be delivered is the local seed dealer. The company, which Thatcher did not name, said this process might be trusted by farmers because it involves the local seed dealer.

"What if the seed dealer is my neighbor and competing with me for cash rent?" Thatcher asked. Or, she added, if the seed dealer’s relatives are competing for cash rent.

Another question, Thatcher said, is whether crop insurance companies and agents will gain access to the data and what impact that would have on competition in that field.

Farmers, she said, are also concerned that knowledge of their farming practices could lead to market manipulation. Companies have said they will not use the data for market activities, but farmers fear a future CEO could change company policy, Thatcher added.

Farmers have also suggested that they should be paid for their data if the companies are using the information, but so far the reaction from companies has been "Hell, no," she said.

Thatcher said she expects a "massive rollout" of the prescription services in the Midwest for the 2014 crop year, but that no consensus on standards is likely to be reached before that.

On Feb. 11, Brian Marshall, a Missouri farmer, testified before the House Small Business Committee on Farm Bureau’s views on big data and also presented Farm Bureau’s official policy positions on the issue, which were developed at its convention in January.

"From Farm Bureau’s perspective, one of the most important issues related to ‘big data’ goes directly to property rights and "who owns and controls the data," Marshall said.

"The risks to privacy that the farmer faces, such as his pesticide or GMO usage that may be an accepted practice but politically unpopular, are of great concern."

"In addition, a farmer’s information is valuable to the companies, so farmers should have a say in and be compensated when their data is sold," Marshall said. "Farmers need to protect their data and make sure they bargain wisely as they share their data with suppliers and companies who desire access to their information."

Farm Bureau has prepared a "Data Privacy Expectation Guide," asking farmers to consider the following issues when considering whether to provide data to a company:

-- Do you own the data?

-- How will the data be used and what benefits will you receive from allowing a provider to include data in a database?

-- Will you control management of the data?

-- What is aggregated data and how can it protect you?

-- Is your personal farm data "anonymized," or made non-personal, and how is "anonymized" defined?

-- Can you stop sharing your data once you agreed to share?

-- Who else might have access to the data, and can it be released to the public or a third party?

-- What is the value of data to you?

-- What is the value of the data to the company?

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at