‘Big data’ on farm brings questions about privacy


Issue Date: January 22, 2014
By Christine Souza

For more than a decade, beginning with the advent of global positioning systems, the use of precision agriculture on the farm has transformed into a whole style of technology that uses computers and satellites to know where the operator is in the field and then deliver the exact inputs needed to that location. This technology helps farmers improve yields, decrease inputs and reduce costs.

In assessing the benefits of this technology for farmers, some observers warn growers to be sure to understand what they are agreeing to regarding the use of their private data before approving a company's terms of service.

"The new big-data technology provides a huge opportunity for farmers to increase their production and their efficiencies. However, it is important that farmers read the fine print and understand the privacy issues that surround release of their data," said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

AFBF has reported an increasing amount of discussion about the ownership of data from various GPS planting and harvesting monitoring technology. For example, several seed and/or equipment companies offer farmers the option to store data from their monitors "on the cloud," that is, on a Web-based service rather than on a personal computer.

If farmers select this option, the companies can access the data. In some cases, the companies will have real-time access to planting and harvest data. In other cases, broadband capabilities in rural areas may not be advanced enough for that to happen.

While some companies aggregate the data and make it available to all who provide it, AFBF said it appears there is not a policy in place to ensure that the companies don't use the data to their benefit—and that they might indeed be able to manipulate the market with enough real-time data.

In late 2013, AFBF and a number of state Farm Bureaus met with agricultural technology providers that are collecting and using "big data" in their marketing and services to farmers. During these discussions, AFBF reported, it became clear that big-data technology will expand at a rapid rate in the next few growing seasons.

AFBF suggests that farmers consider the following regarding the use and privacy of data:

  • 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 the farmer?
  • How can a farmer's "anonymized," or non-personal, data be traced back to the farm?
  • Can you stop sharing 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 the farmer and what is the value of the data to the company?

Big data offers a way to provide more efficiencies and opportunities for higher profits, AFBF said, but growers should weigh those benefits against the additional costs associated with analyzing the data through some other means, and of loss of data ownership and privacy.

"I started our Precision Ag Institute here 10 years ago, and at that point, there really still wasn't a grower willing to give out their yield data or any of that type of information. They wanted to own and control that data," said Clint Cowden, agriculture science and technology instructor at West Hills Community College in Coalinga. "There are definitely some growers that have some (data privacy) concerns, because they are doing some really interesting things with nitrogen management, fertilizer management and seed rates."

Diversified farmer Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming Co. in Los Banos has used precision technology since 2001 for the crops he grows, including cotton, alfalfa, processing tomatoes and grain.

"We use precision technology to really focus on maximizing the use of our inputs, such as chemicals, using variable-rate spraying and amendments to target soil areas that need certain things that others don't, really to fine-tune our program," Michael said.

Michael said he is generally not concerned about the privacy of his farming and personal data.

"Currently, I don't know many services that are asking people for a lot of personal information. Whether going on an website that gives you commodity prices or imagery or whatever it is, your data is not safe even when you are thinking it is safe," he said. "You just have to be really careful what you put out there. If you have a GIS system and know how to use it, there's a lot of data that is out there already. There's imagery of everybody's farms that is out there for the taking."

Even so, Michael added, "a general message of care is not a bad one."

The use of outside companies to process or interpret information gleaned from precision technology on the farm, Cowden said, will need to be decided by each individual farmer.

"For some growers, if they are really doing a lot of cutting-edge things and if that is their business plan to give them a competitive edge, then they absolutely need to keep the data in-house," Cowden said. "For most of our growers, the benefit to whatever commodity they are growing—getting that information out there and pooling it and letting people that can do the geostatistics that they are probably not able to do themselves—it is going to be much better for the commodity. That information will trickle back to the grower and they will become more profitable in the long run."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.