Today’s technology in agriculture — GPS that allow tractors to drive themselves with exact precision, and computers that collect worlds of data for a range of reasons — is a blessing, farmers and ranchers will often tell you.
But like many blessings, it comes with its potential curses.
Producers, ag experts and other officials stress that the information collected by this new technology — data regarding production yields, and farmers’ inputs of seed, water and chemicals, among other things — is viewed as extremely valuable to the large agribusinesses that sell those products to the farmers and ranchers.
In a nutshell, farmers and ranchers want to have a say in how their information is used.
Many questions have been raised, and ag organizations, producers and others are preparing for the debates that lay ahead.
It’s already to the point that, on Tuesday, Brian Marshall, a Missouri farmer, testified on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation to the House Small Business Committee in Washington.
“There’s just a lot of questions out there ... and I’m sure there are a lot of other questions that no one’s even thought of yet,” said Carl Sousek, a Prague, Neb., farmer of corn, soybeans and alfalfa, who also raises cattle, and serves as the chairman of Nebraska Corn Growers Association’s executive board, and is a committee member with the National Corn Growers Association. “It’s certainly on our radar. There’s a lot of discussions that need to be had.”
Among the questions out there:
Should companies have access to such information — compiled on the fields and tractors that are the private property of the farmer or rancher — if the farmer or rancher doesn’t want to share it?
And how is that regulated?
If the farmer or rancher is willing to share the information, should the companies using that information compensate the farmers and ranchers providing it?
And how should they be compensated?
Are companies already using such information to their advantage without the knowledge or consent of the farmer or rancher?
These are the questions Mace Thornton, director of communications for the American Farm Bureau Federation, was asking rhetorically during an interview this past week.
They’re the same questions that many farmers, like Dave Eckhardt near LaSalle, Colo., also are asking.
“There’s just a lot there that we don’t know,” said Eckhardt, the recently elected president of the Colorado Corn Growers Association. “I’m sure conversations will only continue to grow.”
While testifying in Washington Tuesday, Marshall stressed that farmers are right to be concerned about data privacy, in part because the information collected is valuable to companies.
“For years, farmers have used technology advances to better match varieties of seeds, production inputs and management practices with specific field characteristics,” Marshall said before the committee. “While farmers have been experimenting for well over a decade, only now is the industry starting to consider all the uses of this transformative technology.”
Also of concern, he said, are the risks to privacy that farmers could face related to the release of information about pesticide use or biotech crops.
In addition, “Farmers should have a say in and be compensated when their data is sold,” Marshall stressed to the committee.
Another data privacy issue of concern to the Farm Bureau centers around the use of unmanned aircraft systems, better known as drones, for commercial purposes in agriculture and forestry.
Marshall, in his presentation to the House committee, and Thornton, in is his interview, said operators of drones should be required to gain the consent of the landowner or farmer if surveying or gathering data about the landowner’s property below navigable airspace.
Further, the Farm Bureau opposes federal agencies using drones for regulatory enforcement, litigation, and as a sole source for natural resource inventories without the consent of the landowner below navigable airspace.
Thornton explained this week that the American Farm Bureau Federation has spent recent months talking with farmers and ranchers about these “big data” concerns, and now wants to bring big agribusiness to the table.
John Deere and Monsanto have been particularly willing to enter the conversation, he said.
“Right now, it’s all early in the conversation,” he said, adding that no lawmakers in Washington have introduced any legislation concerning the use of farmers and rancher data. “But there’s still a long way to go.”
“Who knows what we don’t know?” Eckhardt said. “But it’s best we find out, and figure it all out, before it’s out of our hands.” ❖