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Will farmers or ag companies benefit from big data?

Farming is on the cusp of a revolution, with large amounts of information being generated. However, who benefits from the data and who owns it? Farmers are also questioning how data can be shared and stored securely.

Thanks to innovation by technology companies, farmers can now share and integrate increasingly large datasets from sensors on agricultural machinery, robots, drones and satellites, and even planted in the soil or attached to animals.

Hardware data can be shared automatically online and collated using software to help farmers make real-time decisions, not just about a particular field or barn, but at a much more specific level. Big data lets them find the best solution for an individual plant or animal.

In theory, data-driven agriculture puts less pressure on the environment and gives you healthier plants and animals and bigger yields. But the data revolution also has its downside. For example, soil and climate information can affect the value of agricultural land. And the obvious question is whether data makes more money for farmers, or whether powerful suppliers and customers snap up the additional margins it generates.

Big data is big business

Companies believe data lets them deliver better products and services, add more value and earn more income. Seed and plant protection giant Monsanto is the biggest data user of all. In 2013 it bought the Climate Corporation for almost $1bn, convinced that information would provide a major source of revenue alongside its existing products, in a market potentially worth up to $25bn.

The Climate Corporation is the largest data provider of its kind. The San Francisco-based company, founded by former Google employees in 2009, aggregates weather, soil and crop information. In Europe, it has acquired the Estonian company VitalFields, which specialises mainly in accounting software.

Monsanto is not alone. More and more businesses are collecting big data from farmers, and this raises a lot of questions, principal among which is who owns the information. In principle it belongs to the farmers themselves, but many are signing away some of their rights.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Conditional ownership

Tobias Menne is head of digital farming at Bayer, which Monsanto is trying to buy. He says the industry needs a major debate about the ownership of user data, similar to that inspired by Google and Facebook. “Everyone says the data belongs to the farmers, but if you look at a tractor manufacturer’s terms and conditions, you’ll see that when you buy one, you are allowing them to collect data about the machine and all the equipment attached to it.

“There’s often a cooling-off clause, but who really bothers to search through all the small print?” Mr Menne says. The data can be used to provide a better service, but it also has marketing potential.

Agrochemical company DuPont Pioneer says in its terms of business that it may collect and publish anonymised crop-yield data for any purpose it sees fit. Basically, if you want to use a product, you either agree to share your data, or go to all the trouble of saying no. Ultimately, big data stands or falls on trust.

The Dutch farming organisation Akkerbouw has tackled this issue by drawing up a code of conduct for the sharing of corporate data. This is primarily about self regulation, and has no legal status, but the organisation says the code is supported by farmers, retailers and processors, and applies to any organisation doing business with companies in the agricultural sector.

Farmers retain the rights to their data, and confirm that it is correct and complete. The party receiving it must first tell the farmer what it will be used for and the farmer decides whether this is acceptable. Akkerbouw’s code also requires the customer to secure the data against loss, theft and unauthorised access, and to carry out regular backups. It is designed to encourage the use of big data, while keeping farmers firmly in the driving seat.

Data transport

Datahub, a Dutch non-profit co-operative recently launched on 1 July, was set up in the belief that the big data revolution should primarily benefit farmers. It transports data from farms to applications suppliers and vice versa at high speed, and was established by three other co-ops, the farmers’ union LTO Nederland and EDI-Circle, a federation of agricultural accountants.

The three co-ops, which had previously combined to form a trust – Stichting Smart Dairy Farming – are CRV (a specialist in cattle genetics), Agrifirm (fodder and agriculture) and Friesland Campina (dairy). The trust began operation in 2013. One of its objectives was to set up a secure data highway compatible with third-party apps. Access to this is not limited to members of the co-op: the aim is to achieve maximum participation.

The basic principle, as with the code of conduct, is that the farmer retains ownership of the data. Again, this not a legal requirement, but chairman Ton Loman says a shared hub can keep costs down, making it attractive both for farmers and applications builders. It also ensures that companies do not have to organise their own expensive data transport.

Critical mass

The involvement of CRV, Agrifirm and Friesland Campina ensures that the hub has already reached critical mass, which keeps costs low, and the three are also talking to potential users in other sectors. Mr Loman says EDI-Circle’s participation is important.

Rovecom’s acquisition of Infobroker late in 2016 ensured that the hub was ready for dynamic data – for example, from robot farmers that use gates to monitor grazing. This year, the trust also acquired the Van Aaken ICT authorisations register, in which farmers state who can use their data and for what purpose. This is managed by the LTO Nederland farmers’ union to ensure that it is independently regulated.

“We don’t want people thinking that agribusiness is pulling all the strings in pursuit of its own commercial interests,” Mr Loman says. The addition of EDI-Circle to the co-op was another milestone. It has been operating a hub for some 12 years, using it for technical and financial information such as billing big data.

Mr Loman believes that after a difficult start over recent years, the use of agricultural big data is finally getting off the ground. He also says farmers need to draw a clear line in the sand when it comes to defining what type of big data can be shared, and under what conditions.

Cows go online 24/7

Precision agriculture is often associated with arable farming solutions, but it is also being used in animal husbandry to produce healthier, more productive livestock.

In April, the veterinary medicine faculty of Utrecht University and Invenit BV, a specialist in the Internet of Things, set up a joint venture called Connected Animals. This is a continuation of the high-profile Happy Healthy Cow research project.

The faculty worked with engineers, information technology specialists and the dairy industry on a cow sensor that monitors real-time information on the animal’s health, productivity and food intake. It records physiological parameters such as heart rate, temperature and abdominal cavity pressure, and also the cow’s movements in the field or barn.

Another example is the use of gates by robot farmers, which can show whether the animals have spent enough time grazing to get a “pasture bonus” from Friesland Campina. The data is not real-time, but is bundled to save on the cost of transporting it.