The land grab for farm data

Farmers are adopting smart-sensor technologies and connected farm equipment more quickly than ever, stretching each season to eke out greater yield from finite acreage.

This rise in so-called precision agriculture has precipitated a massive influx in unstructured “bushels to bytes” farm data, creating new opportunities for an industry that has previously operated solely in the physical realm.

A new frontier

From government agencies to commodity traders, hedge funds, biotech companies and, of course, seed, chemical and fertilizer manufacturers, everyone wants a piece of the “internet of farming,” as evidenced here and here.

Specifically, ownership and control of agronomic and equipment data is understood to have dramatic escalating value. Which seed varieties were the most successful and where? Which plant populations performed best? Whose recommendations (e.g. nitrogen programs) outperformed their peers?

Which input datasets are used for these recommendations, how were they acquired and are they standardized and accessible? How are the big companies actually using the data? Who has access, how long have they been acquiring it and how long do they keep it? Which documents did I sign to give them access?

Data is one of the most valuable things farmers harvest.

Make no mistake, the ambiguity around the value of this data is intentional. Nobody wants to initiate paying for something that has always been free.

Regrettably, those who least understand the true value of the data produced are farmers themselves. Our neighbors around the country give their data away for a pittance, or worse. Yet, data is one of the most valuable things farmers harvest.

There’s no doubt that there is confusion around the “hard value” of data. Farmers tell me, “Look, I know that my data has value because everyone wants it. The part that frustrates me is that companies want my data in return for some undefined ‘value.’ Meanwhile they are often upselling me for additional services that would not exist without my data.”

You snooze, you lose

Farmers know in theory that it’s important to collect data, and they do record some of it season by season.

Farmers, remember, were part of the very first wave of GPS adopters (long before Google Maps and car navigation systems), and continue to live and work at the forefront of technology in ways that surprise most Americans — who are unfamiliar with modern agriculture.

Although farmers are, in many cases, adopting leading-edge “precision ag” technology, the value remains elusive and difficult to quantify. Datasets fill up their local hard drives and thumb drives, but, at the end of the day, farmers are not hard-core technologists or data scientists, and don’t intend to be — they already have a full-time job with plenty to do.

But there’s a naive sense among farmers that the digital revolution is in its early days, and that there is plenty of time to figure things out. It’s a “wait and see” mentality.

Big Ag’s big move

Against this backdrop, big companies are already using farmersdata with and without permission, blurring the legal lines between ownership and control and taking advantage of the fact that they aren’t being held accountable. Yet.

The recent, hotly debated John Deere and Monsanto agreement is just one example of how quickly things are changing.

It’s clear that data is the new currency.

Monsanto entered the ag-connectivity world in 2012 when it acquired privately held Precision Planting in a deal valued up to $250 million. Fast-forward four years and Monsanto has parlayed their original data deal into this more recent strategic partnership with John Deere that involves better access to farmer data. Rumors abound that little or no cash actually changed hands.

It’s clear that data is the new currency. The “DeereSanto” agreement is just one example of how the industry has demonstrated it will move forward with or without farmers.

Furthermore, these issues are evolving quickly. The time to debate data ownership is now. Farmers are at risk of being left out of the conversation and the lucrative economics of data if we don’t speak up.

And I get it. It’s complicated. Your farm data might be generated from a John Deere terminal, which is communicating with the sensors on a Kinze planter and the digital layer is delivered to you as a hard copy map that was exported from a proprietary software system (e.g. from your genetics company). It’s easy to see why the equation is so hard to discern, and how it might be easy for a farmer to get lost in the dialogue amidst competing and powerful entities that have a vested interested in controlling the narrative.

The digital wild west

Farm data is expected to be a $20$25 billion revenue opportunity, but we haven’t yet determined how the data can be collected, structured, stored and shared, let alone monetized.

Today, there are no clear-cut guidelines regarding the privacy of the data, nor its ownership and control. Many different players impose contractual obligations in fine print, but few are likely to stick until there is wide-reaching agreement on what’s appropriate.

Contracts between farmers and their partners are opaque at best, and manipulative at worst. It’s time we put farmer data rights up front, in clear language that establishes who owns the data.

We need to make transparent and fair to all parties involved key issues like data ownership and control. We need to incentivize all parties to proliferate data to mutual benefit.

Farmers need a reason to ensure that good data is collected.

Put simply, the industry also needs to come together to set new standards for connected farming. I’d argue that all of the stakeholders need to be involved in these conversations.

There is reason to feel optimistic. Over the past several months, 37 industry participants have taken a seat at the table to contribute to the creation of the Transparency Evaluator, an important tool built to bring transparency to farm data agreements. It is time for them to sign the documents they helped create.

The time is now

If farmers are going to adopt precision agriculture and other modern farm technologies, we can’t afford to ignore the value inherent in the data collected.

Farm data is a key part of any farmer’s livelihood and should be treated accordingly. The standards by which data privacy and ownership are governed depend on the industry’s willingness to engage in the data transparency discussion holistically.

The payoff is, of course, a dramatic upside in terms of profitability. Farmers who collect and own their data are natural partners with companies who are trying to validate their product performance. The key is to properly align the incentive structure. Farmers need a reason to ensure that good data is collected.

And third-party data buyers win, too. Data buyers that clearly state the information they are interested in acquiring will get a verified dataset. But let me be clear, they should be paying for this information. This payment is the tangible “value” that farmers are looking to get from their data.

The rules are being decided as we speak. Will ours be a coalition of a few, or many? Now is the time to get it right.