Data Security on the Farm

Data collection using precision ag tools is helping farmers. The question remains: Who can use their data?

By Des Keller

In this new era where mass amounts of data are being compiled on the farm and off, growers want to know they have control.

In this new era where mass amounts of data are being compiled on the farm and off, growers want to know they have control.

If you want to know how seriously Fort Dodge, Iowa-based New Cooperative takes data security, the director of their precision agronomic division doesn’t even have a key to the room containing their computer servers.

That’s how closely guarded the information is kept regarding thousands of farms with whom the cooperative does business. Moving that information to a third party is an effort not taken lightly. “I don’t care if your shoes are on fire, I’m not going to move that data without specifically confirming with the current holder and making sure that data form is signed by the grower,” says Terry Panbecker, who manages the cooperative’s Midwest Agronomic Professional Services, or MAPS division. “We have very specific protocols on transferring data.”

Emphatic assurances like those from Panbecker—along with specific procedures—provide confidence to farmers that precious information about their business, such as yield, seeding, spraying and fertility information, isn’t sold or given to third parties beyond the operation’s most trusted advisers. In this new era where mass amounts of data are being compiled on the farm and off, growers want to know they have control.

However, whether producers do control their information isn’t a given in the relatively young precision ag industry. “It’s still a bit of the wild, wild west right now,” says Joe Russo, who helped pioneer what would become precision farming 28 years ago as an agricultural meteorologist at Penn State University. “The sharing of information can be good or bad, but those responsible for generating the data—the farmers—their permission should be required for any use.”

Today, Russo is the president and head of research and development at ZedX, Inc. The Bellefonte, Penn., company creates web-based software solutions for tracking, sharing and safeguarding field records and irrigation operations, among other data sets.

“Your data is your most important source of information,” says Russo. “It defines you, and represents your economic position and intellectual property. There is no doubt in my mind who owns it.”

Ownership notwithstanding, who can use that data is often subject to less-than-transparent practices. Consider that many companies, including some agricultural equipment manufacturers, bury an “opt out” clause in the fine print of documents concerning a purchase or service agreement. In such cases, the onus is on the customers, who must search for and find such a clause, then purposefully decline in order to maintain their privacy. If not, the company providing the equipment or service can use or even share a farm’s data with third parties.

The inverse of that practice, one employed by New Cooperative and all AGCO brands, is to ask the customer to opt in to share data. “We don’t allow ourselves to have access to the customer’s information without approval,” says Jason O’Flanagan, senior marketing specialist for AGCO’s Advanced Technology Solutions (ATS).

“We’ve isolated ourselves so the farmer trusts in the fact AGCO is there as an assistant along the way,” says O’Flanagan, noting that if the customer gives AGCO permission to use the data, the dealer and company can monitor the operation of their machinery, helping with maintenance and warning of possible problems. He adds that the collection of such data, by sharing it with AGCO engineers, also helps develop innovations faster.

Bridging the Gap. Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) calculates that total factor productivity (TFP) must grow by an average rate of at least 1.75% annually to double food supply using current resource levels. While past accomplishments do not guarantee future performance, from 2001 to 2010, the average annual rate of TFP growth was 1.81%.

Bridging the Gap. Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) calculates that total factor productivity (TFP) must grow by an average rate of at least 1.75% annually to double food supply using current resource levels. While past accomplishments do not guarantee future performance, from 2001 to 2010, the average annual rate of TFP growth was 1.81%.

Knowing up front who has access to your data is imperative, says O’Flanagan. “Would you give just anyone your W-2 or your tax return?” he asks. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people would say ‘No.’ When someone else takes your yield and application maps, and planning maps, you are giving them a complete view of how your farm works. You need to know who has that information, and you need to trust them to use that data carefully.”

If the level of commitment on this issue can vary from company to company, it can also differ from country to country, according to Russo. “I think Canada is more sensitive on this,” says Russo. The country has enacted the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, or PIPEDA, which people like Russo see as a template for similar U.S. legislation. The act outlines a code for protecting personal information in commercial activities using 10 privacy principles, such as “consent” and “limiting collection.”

This discussion alone indicates the growing level of concern over data ownership, but also highlights how valuable the data has become to individual producers. That isn’t disputed.

“Precision data allows farmers to apply materials more accurately where it is needed in a field with spatial accuracy,” says Russo. Eventually, a producer gains even more knowledge at a “sub-field level,” which allows them to use equipment tied to better management, he says.

By almost all accounts, the collection and use of precision data is here to stay and continues to increase. A survey of equipment dealers in 2013 indicated that 62% of dealerships reported the use of automated steering by customers.

The CropLife/Purdue University Precision Agriculture survey also showed the usage of GPS-enabled sprayer booms was at 53%, up from 39% in 2011. And field mapping using GIS was reported by 32% of responding dealerships. Other precision ag techniques that rely heavily on the collection of data, such as variable-rate seeding, information-based livestock farming and even equipment monitoring, are also on the rise.

“The uses of these practices are key to future increases in production agriculture,” says O’Flanagan. “Pressures on producers to find even more efficiencies in their operation are certainly growing, and precision agriculture tools are a key to that.

“But not just field and yield data,” O’Flanagan continues. “The collection of machine data, such as engine temperature, spikes in oil pressure and wheel slippage, is also critical to a farmer in improving performance in real time and in the future, in terms of helping to improve equipment design.”

Texas producer Billy Tiller believes the practices that make up precision agriculture “have taken farming to another level. It used to be as much art as anything, but precision ag is changing the face of agriculture, so it is much more about science.”

Tiller is one of the founders of Grower Information Services Cooperative, whose goal is to store, safeguard and disseminate farm-generated data on behalf of its members. “Precision ag is much more a systems approach … that allows us to do things with pinpoint accuracy.

“What we are handling is something that is a valuable commodity,” continues Tiller. “I don’t have to explain that value proposition to growers anymore. They realize it.”