Applying data information to individual farms brings up broadcast access, security concerns | TheFencePost.com

Applying data information to individual farms brings up broadcast access, security concerns

The idea of using "big data" — the collection of information and applying it to individual farms and fields to improve efficiency — is popular, but Congress may have to help with broadband access and regulate for security concerns.

The House General Farm Commodities & Risk Management Subcommittee was told on July 13. Subcommittee Chairman Rick Crawford, R-Ark., noted the hearing was the third on big data the House Agriculture Committee held in the last year and a half.

"The ground is already quickly shifting," Crawford said. "Big data is influencing planting decisions and optimizing yields, it gives farmers tools to more accurately assess soil health and water usage, and it's even cutting down on labor costs. Farmers are also quickly learning that smart investments in new technology will not only make them more efficient, but will also conserve resources and ensure their land will remain productive for generations to come. Finally, big data is making USDA farm programs more accurate, efficient and easier for farmers to navigate."

But he added, "There continues to be considerable uncertainty in the legal and regulatory landscape. Farmers are justifiably concerned about the privacy and security of their data while questions loom over data ownership. Inadequate rural broadband access is also a significant barrier for many farmers who lack the high-speed internet needed to take full advantage of the innovations we are discussing today. And, as the industry continues making investments in its future, the federal government must keep pace to modernize and adapt to a rapidly changing environment."

The decisions Congress makes "surrounding data and agriculture technology will decide the future of farming in America and impact producers for years to come as technologies continue expanding and evolving," Crawford said.

"America's farmers and ranchers need every tool available to help combat the difficult economic times in farm country," added House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas. "From soil health to water usage, big data and agricultural technology are helping lead the way in cutting costs and conserving resources on the farm."

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Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., the subcommittee ranking member, said technological advances have upped the standard of production in order to remain competitive today, but not everyone is on a level playing field quite yet.

"When I was first elected to the Congress, if you got 80-90 bushels an acre of corn you were an all-star," said Nolan, who joined the House in 1975. "Now it's like get out of town, where have you been? We (now have) quadruple yields."

But Todd Janzen, president of Janzen Agricultural Law, an Indianapolis firm whose clients are farmers, ag technology providers and agribusinesses, said farmers still distrust big data firms, fear losing control when dealing with the companies and are frustrated by the complexities of legal agreements producers are asked to sign.

"Farmers are no strangers to contracts — they sign things all the time — but now they are being asked to check an 'I accept' box that has some pretty important consequences for what happens to their data, followed by pages and pages of legal type that they may not read," Janzen said.

The Ag Data Transparent effort, which was started by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and commodity groups to bring transparency to data contracts between farmers and their technology providers, is not widely used, Janzen said.

"Out of the dozens of ag tech providers with cloud-based platforms on the market today, only eight have embraced the process," Janzen said. "To be fair, others are in the process but adoption could still be faster and better. Farmers should ask their technology providers why they have not earned that Ag Data Transparent seal. This subcommittee should ask technology providers this question as well when they come before you to testify."

Roger Royse, a Silicon Valley lawyer who grew up in the produce business in North Dakota, said the standards in the farm groups' big data project are not law, and suggested Congress consider an enforcement regime for farm data similar to that granted to the Federal Trade Commission to regulate data privacy and protection practices of companies across all industries.

"A major issue that farmers are concerned about is whether they have sole ownership of farm data," Royse said in his opening remarks. "Because farm data, if kept secret, is information that derives independent economic value from not being publicly known, it could possibly be accorded trade secret protection."

Royse and others also testified broadband availability is vital to the use of big data.

Billy Tiller, a Texas cotton farmer who is the co-founder and adviser to the CEO for Grower Information Services Cooperative, said he believes data will be helpful even to small farmers.

"I really think innovation, and technology, and broadband is going to be very helpful for a grower with 100 acres," Tiller said. "(They're) going to be able to store data in ways (they) never could before because of the mobility of a smart phone (and) being able to carry that computer in his pocket."

"I think every grower will have access to tools to make decisions in ways they never had them before," he continued. "Most farmers, even with age, are carrying smartphones. … I can't carry on a meeting without asking everyone, 'Can we all silence our phones?' I never thought that'd be an issue because of the age of the farmer."

But he stressed more needs to be done so other producers around the country see the benefits of farming technology.

"If these millennials want their food to talk — and they do, they want traceability — the only way we are going to make it talk is to actually have connectivity back to the field level," he said. "People are moving to town, but the land is never going to move, so we need the connectivity back."

"I think there's a lot of things you guys could do from the committee to actually build (broadband and technology) out," he said. "You could be the catalyst to really keep that moving."

But Tiller also noted his frustration with the privacy issue.

"I have, frankly, been confounded by the fact that many, if not most, of these trusted partners of growers are not very open to the idea of their customers integrating the data captured and created via services offered by those trusted partners with other data related to the grower's operation, much less integrating that data in anonymized, aggregated data sets of multiple growers," he said in his written testimony.

"In fact, many such services require the data captured/created from the service be stored within the service provider's system and only be utilized with the particular service provider's tools," he added. "The ag tech world is littered with those that live in fear of what a farmer might be able to do with better data. Therefore, most try to create a standalone data ecosystem, in which the farmer's data is stored for post-season analysis and creating next year's recommendations."

Deborah Casurella, CEO of Independent Data Management LLC, an Illinois firm, said there needs to be more coordination between the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management to reduce farmers' reporting burdens.

In closing, Crawford symbolized the upcoming path with increasing accesses to big data and broadband as a "three-legged stool."

First, he said, is "identifying the key players" who can deliver from a technological standpoint, second is finding who has the infrastructure to reach rural America and third is coming up with finances for expansion and role of the government in doing so.

"(Figuring this out) is a struggle that we will have to work towards collectively," he concluded.