I often sit in the cab of my combine and wonder what my grandfather would think if he could experience the technology we have today.
Never mind the creature comforts inside the cab; the efficiency of today’s farm equipment far exceeds what was being used generations ago. Corn pickers pulled by mules have been replaced by advanced machinery with yield monitors and GPS and, yes, air conditioning.
Modern technology is helping to enhance environmental practices by integrating information from planters, sprayers and harvesters to prevent the overlapping of rows and double-spraying.
I often tell elected and appointed officials that farmers are willing to adopt technology as it becomes available, helping us take better care of our soil, use less water, farm fewer sensitive acres and improve efficiency.
Just recently, several companies have taken the use of technology one step further. They’re offering to take your planting, spraying and harvest information – generated by the computers on the equipment connected to the GPS device – and add that to a series of other data sets, including the soil type on your farm, weather maps, and fertilizer or manure application rates.
Why? Because new computer programs can analyze this information and create an individualized prescription of a specific seed variety, precise fertilizer concentrations and particular pesticides in one part of a field versus another. Agribusinesses are on the verge of being able to hand farmers a detailed plan for every acre we farm, allowing us to maximize resources and minimize risk.
This is a major breakthrough in agriculture. Using computer technology, and the data generated by that technology, can help us feed a growing world.
This is big. This is revolutionary.
However, as with almost everything else in today’s world, there are some risks we farmers must carefully consider.
One of the most important issues surrounding agricultural data involves property rights and the question of who owns and controls the data. Information about common agricultural practices that can be politically unpopular, such as pesticide or fertilizer application, can pose a significant threat to a farm if used in a malicious way.
Farmers have every right to be concerned about data privacy. Even if we do everything to the best of our ability, following all the applicable rules, regulations, and best management practices, there is still concern that overzealous regulators or ideological interest groups might gain access to individual farm data through subpoenas or computer hacking.
However, farm-generated data isn’t new. Agriculture companies have used farm data for years, but the quantity of real-time information now available at the farm level could be a new concern. If a large agribusiness had access to real-time information from 1,000 combines randomly spread across the nation, that information would be extremely valuable to traders dealing in agricultural futures. 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.
The good news is that the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has been meeting with several companies that are in the trial stages of delivering the kinds of data-driven farm solutions I’ve described. They’ve been willing to work with us and to address our concerns regarding privacy and the potential for market distortion.
This is a complex issue with serious implications. I am encouraging farmers to take some time to learn more about agricultural data and to consider the benefits and risks of this revolutionary new tool in farming. We have but one chance to build the framework for a whole new world of farm information.
For additional information about “Big Data” in agriculture, including nine questions you should ponder before agreeing to share your farm data, visit the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Data Privacy Expectation Guide at http://www.pfb.com/data-privacy-guide.
Carl T. Shaffer is president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.