Information technology — or Big Data — is “the next big game changer for agriculture,” says Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Thanks to “significant investments in precision agriculture technology” by many companies, “producers now have more information about their farms at their fingertips than ever before,” he said at a Capitol Hill hearing on Big Data, agriculture innovation, and the implications of technological advancements.
“Big Data has what seems like a boundless potential to improve the efficiency, profitability, and competitiveness of our nation’s farmers and ranchers, while conserving natural resources and benefitting the environment. In fact, the benefits of Big Data have already been paying off.”
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But, Conaway said, “at least one of the reasons why potential benefits have not yet been fully realized is that farmers and ranchers are getting a lot of information from lots of different places. Getting all this information into one place, where it can be easily accessed and used, is critically important.”
A goal of the hearings, he said, was to “talk about this impediment and how [technology companies] and farmers are working to find farmer-friendly solutions for overcoming it.”
PROTECTING PRODUCER PRIVACY
Beyond practical considerations, Conaway said, is “the important question of how to protect producer privacy and private property rights. Thankfully, the law protects the privacy of most producer information that USDA gathers. But that does not cover information gathered by private entities.”
That has “enormous implications,” Conaway said, that “can, among other things, affect the commodities market, land values, how farm policies operate, and potentially expose producers to frivolous and costly environmental litigation.”
A “central point,” he said, is that “this is the farmer’s information — and as such, the farmer should own or, at bare minimum, control information about his operation. If we can achieve this important principle, I think we go a long way toward insuring that American agriculture harnesses the power of Big Data.”
Among those testifying before the committee was Billy Tiller, director of business development and co-founder of the Grower Information Services Cooperative at Lubbock, Texas, and a fourth generation farmer.
“I believe another revolution in agriculture is occurring now — and that is the Information Revolution,” Tiller said. “It is built on precision agriculture, which involves the integration of computing power, satellites, and software that is increasingly being utilized to bring the American farmer into a ‘brave new world’ of automation and operational analysis.
“It involves GPS guidance systems, recording operational activity in fields, and programmed applications customizable at the field and sub-field levels. Indeed, we are accelerating toward a time when the producer will utilize all available sources of information, deciphered intelligently to operate more efficiently and decisively. This is the ‘Big Data’ opportunity within agriculture.”
PROBLEMS AND HURDLES
The Information Revolution is under way, Tiller said. “This is very exciting. But there are some problems and hurdles to overcome.
“We at GiSC think precision agriculture, as we know it today, has one fundamental drawback: It creates what is really an overwhelming amount of data that is difficult to assimilate, especially without tools to integrate and synchronize data created by various sources. So, the data-poor environment of agriculture’s past is now data-rich, but we lack any really effective way to handle all the information that is being funneled into the agricultural producers’ management systems.
“Too much information is almost impossible to manage, especially since the individual producer’s data is an island. The farmer can get his hands on more information about his farming operation than at any other time in history, but that information is currently for his eyes only. The farmer is at a loss as to how to accomplish the task of sharing his information with another party.”
The information age has not only put information from internal sources at the producer’s disposal, Tiller said, “but also information from many outside sources. He receives data and information from the Farm Service Agency, crop insurance agents, accountants, chemical vendors, spray pilots, fertilizer dealers, cotton gins, marketing pools, grain elevators, equipment dealers, crop consultants, real estate brokers, etc. The list goes on and on.”
That creates a dilemma, he said. “Not only does the grower have his own island of incompatible and unassimilated data, but there are also third party data islands. The grower needs both to provide data and receive data from those parties. That is the core reason GiSC was formed — to be the solution that bridges these islands, integrating and assimilating the grower’s disparate data and providing digital connections with those that provide services to his operation.
“We at GiSC were determined that there is a need in the industry for a grower-controlled platform that would be open to all service and technology providers to participate. This would provide a neutral technology tool, allowing growers to easily collect data from all of the proprietary systems and disparate clouds, and to organize and translate it into something meaningful.”
GiSC is attempting, Tiller said, “to move the industry in the direction of enabling growers to have an end-to-end view of their operations, just like an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platform in other industries. But what has been lacking is a technology-neutral middleman that can solve the industry’s data acquisition and integration problem. GiSC and its partners aim to fill that gap and be the aggregator of agricultural data, whether it is from John Deere equipment, Case IH equipment, or any other precision data technology provider.”
GiSC is a data cooperative owned by growers, Tiller pointed out. “It was founded on the notion that growers need an easy way to securely store and access their information, and to share that information with those who serve and support them. GiSC, in every sense, is ‘Built by Growers, For Growers.’” Today, he said, GiSC has 1,300 members in 37 states, “and beyond that, we estimate that we have had direct personal communications with over 10,000 growers.”
Tiller said Jason Ward, executive director of GiSC, summed up the cooperative’s mission thusly: “Information is the new, and emerging, cash crop for agriculture — and I believe the grower should be at the forefront of that movement. The first step for every grower is to make sure he or she is taking an active role in owning and controlling his or her data.”
THREE MAIN OBJECTIVES
That goal has three primary objectives, Tiller said.
1. Establish the precedent that growers should own and control the information and data related to their production agriculture operations.
2. Offer growers a private and secure cloud-based platform called AgXchange (www.AgXchange.com), where they can store all of the information related to their operation, and provide their trusted third parties a communication channel for exchanging data, digital documents, and information.
“AgXchange will have the functionality to organize a grower’s information geographically by a map of a grower’s farm or land units. Central to GiSC’s mission, the grower will be in control — the grower will dictate who may send data to the grower’s data repository or access the data in the repository, and may limit the access granted to his or her repository.
3. Return value back to the grower members of GiSC. “As the network of information and connections increases in AgXchange, the value of that network increases. GiSC, will deliver patronage dividends back to its grower members from profits generated.”
Farmers need a data aggregator and data integrator “to help them reap all the benefits of big data and its implications to agriculture,” Tiller said. “We cannot just sit on the sidelines and wonder how it will all turn out, trusting that the tremendous for-profit agriculture technology providers will use our information only for our good, rather than returns to their own share-holders. We need to be proactive by joining forces with groups such as GiSC, to give farmers a voice.”
Growers must have access to data they own, he said, “and they must devise applications and paths to bring the data back to their barn. As growers, we must remain vigilant with the agreements that are currently being utilized by some vendors that take the rights to our data and our future data if we use the software or hardware of that particular vendor. We also need to realize that some of these agreements give these companies the right to a worldwide license to use our data in any way they please — and in most cases, for free.”
Tiller said it’s important “that all farmers know the important work that has been done — thanks in large part to the leadership of the American Farm Bureau — to bring all parties, grower groups and technology providers, to the table to hammer out a set of principles that should govern contracts in this area. This was, and is, an important piece of work for growers everywhere.
“I would just say to all growers everywhere: You will be impacted by the Information Revolution, whether you choose to participate or not,” Tiller said. “Information is powerful, and we do not want to be at the mercy of others, nor should we, as growers, be information-poor. The farmer must remain the premier fount of knowledge and information about his farm.”