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Farmers Worry About Sharing Big Data

Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media

When it comes to keeping data secure, farmers are worried about some of the same issues as the rest of us.

Precision data from the farm could help drive new levels of productivity, but farmers have to decide just how much they want to share.

Precision agriculture started with satellite-guided tractors and maps recording pinpoint levels of grain yields during harvest. But farmers like Dave Beck are taking the next step.

It's putting the fertilizer where it's needed, which is better for the environment, and keeping it out of the water and the rivers.

Beck’s machine shop is filled with some of the old tools for farming like wrenches, metal grinders, and air compressors. But sitting on a steel slab of a welding table is one of the new tools: a laptop computer loaded with specialized software.

On the laptop, Beck has access to a detailed planting map for one of his irrigated fields. It shows a bright green circle inside a dark red square. The map tells Beck’s planter to drop more than double the seeds in the green area covered by sprinklers than the red corners where the water doesn’t reach.

“You can kind of see the two different colors where the pivot corners are a different color,” said Beck who farms 4,000 acres around Clarks, Neb., with his dad, son and two partners. “As soon as it crosses that line, the GPS line, it will slow the planter drives down and thin the population down.”

Depending on the soil, rainfall, and past yields, farmers can program maps to apply different amounts of seed, water, and fertilizer to the land instead of blanketing fields with an arbitrary amount.

“We could maybe put 300 pounds (of fertilizer) on the acres that needed it and zero on some other acres,” Beck said. “It’s putting the fertilizer where it’s needed, which is better for the environment, and keeping it out of the water and the rivers.”

Now that retailers from Walmart to Whole Foods are putting a critical eye on fertilizer use in food production, it pays for farmers to be precise.

But the big payoff is still out there if farmers are willing to embrace what’s known as “Big Data,” datasets so large they’re able to offer deeper and more nuanced insights. If farmers combine all of the precision ag data they’re gathering, researchers, scientists and consultants could be able to draw new, important conclusions.

Purdue University agronomist, Bruce Erickson, says even with all the precision technology, there’s a lot of trial and error on the farm right now. The answers would be clearer if farmers pooled their results.

“We mine the information from farmers’ fields sort of like Google mines information from our mouse clicks and Walmart mines from when we purchase certain products,” Erickson said.

That would be a treasure trove for seed companies. It could help speed up research and establish a track record for new seed varieties.

“People are thinking whole farms could be our research plot versus doing a specific study in a corner of a farm,” Erickson said.

Farmers could make decisions based on neighbors’ real results. They could tell if people who got great yields with a certain corn hybrid also liked a particular variety of soybean, just as Amazon recommends books you might like based on your purchase history.

“That’s huge,” said Todd Reed who farms more than 2,000 acres near Lincoln, Neb. “You can see [tests] over multiple soil types and multiple types of operations. You could look at one hybrid over 5,000 acres. There’s an extreme amount of value in that.”

But that’s where the Information Age gets bogged down in the nitty-gritty.

Someone else is probably profiting from it and (farmers) feel they should share in that.

If their data is sold, will farmers get a cut? What if there’s a security breach like at Target? Those concerns are enough for many farmers to keep their data between themselves and close advisors.

“I think there’s a distrust of the major corporations of, ‘O.K., what are you going to do with my data?’” said Brandon Hunnicutt, a farmer from Giltner, Neb.

If the data could put seed companies and fertilizer manufacturers years ahead, where will it leave farmers?

“Someone else is probably profiting from it and (farmers) feel they should share in that,” said farmer Lon Bohn of Gibbon, Neb.

At this point, digging into data could represent the next big step forward for U.S. agriculture, but only if farmers feel safe taking the plunge. That’s why the Farm Bureau, the country’s largest farm group, hashed out a new policy for sharing farm data in January. It includes the right for farmers to delete their data whenever they want.

As farmers become more comfortable with precision technology it may only be a matter of time before sharing data becomes second nature. Lon Bohn says when it comes to technology, farmers don’t like to be left behind.

“There’s always one farmer in the community who’s twenty years behind everybody else and they don’t want to be that guy,” Bohn said.

But for now, most farmers are taking a long, hard look before they leap into Big Data.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.