Tools & data

Background

What can blockchain do for agricultural data?

What does blockchain mean to farmers and others in the ag industry?

Most farmers will have heard about blockchain technology. But what does it mean to farmers and others in the ag industry? That’s the question the Agricultural Data Coalition (ADC) answers in an online article.

Encrypted records

A blockchain represents encrypted records (database) that are linked together (sequential) and shared with a group (distributed). Everyone in the group has a copy of all the records, and they are stored sequentially; meaning each new record is connected to the previous like the links of a chain. A “block” consists of the encrypted records people want to securely store, a link to the previous block, and the date and time it was created.

“This structure makes it nearly impossible to falsify a record once it is in the chain since it would not match the distributed copies of the chain, and each block has a link to the previous one all the way to the original to ensure nothing has been added or removed,” says the ADC.

And If someone does attempt to alter a record, the summary contained in the subsequent block would no longer match, indicating something had been changed. “If someone tries to add or remove an entire block everyone in the group has their own copy of the entire chain so it is easy to identify any copy that does not align with the rest of the group.”

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A blockchain could record when and where a specific variety of a grain crop was planted, what fertilisers where applied, what crop protection products where used, when the crop was harvested and where in a field each load originated. - Photos: ANP
A blockchain could record when and where a specific variety of a grain crop was planted, what fertilisers where applied, what crop protection products where used, when the crop was harvested and where in a field each load originated. - Photos: ANP

Traceability in agriculture

in agriculture, the predominate area blockchain is being used so far is for traceability. “This represents a logical application of a database/ledger technology. To enable traceability, the person on the receiving end of a supply chain needs a way to quickly and easily verify what happened to the product throughout the supply chain.”

Also read: Blockchain market in agriculture growing rapidly

Theoretically, according to the ADC a blockchain could record when and where a specific variety of a grain crop was planted, what fertilisers where applied, what crop protection products where used, when the crop was harvested and where in a field each load originated. “Additional logistics information about what elevator, what shipping method, which processor and final distribution to the store shelf could also be recorded as additional links in the chain.”

Walmart leafy green suppliers

According to the ADC, high value crops that have more pressing needs for traceability are already doing this. Walmart announced last year they would require all leafy green suppliers to implement their blockchain system.

Agricultural Data Coalition:

Consumers who are ever more removed from agriculture want to know more about where their food comes from and how it was grown and processed

The ADC says the need for the technology is two-fold: “First, consumers who are ever more removed from agriculture want to know more about where their food comes from and how it was grown and processed. Implementing blockchain can provide this information to the consumer so they know more about their lettuce in Walmart’s initial implementation.”

Food safety

“Second, more from the food safety aspect, blockchain is enabling faster and more accurate handling of health issues. Last year saw several outbreaks of E. coli or salmonella, tracking back to the source and determining what products were actually contaminated is time consuming and difficult using current systems. This not only can lead to more people getting sick, but is also very costly resulting in large quantities of product being thrown away simply because it can’t be proven it is unaffected.”

“From Walmart’s research, current, predominately paper record keeping systems, take about seven days to trace through the supply chain. Utilising blockchain they were able to shorten this to a 2.2-second turnaround.”

Implications for other farms

What are the implications for the rest of farms that focus on grain, beef, cotton, poultry, or other commodities? According to the ADC, this gets a little tougher, when dealing with commodities the issue of “commingling” is likely one of the most obvious hurdles to traceability in general. When a farmer loads a semi and hauls 1,000 bushels of grain to the elevator and dumps it into the 1.2-million-bushel bin, some of the traceability is lost since that load is now mixed with the grain from farms from all across the county.

Different levels of traceability

This aspect will likely result in different levels of traceability; consumers or products that want or need to know what field a crop came from would require specialised handling of the crop to preserve the identity of the crop and likely increase costs. For others knowing roughly the county where a crop was grown without major changes to current storage and handling practices might be adequate.

Agricultural Data Coalition:

Anyone that has been around precision farming knows it is not uncommon to see corn yield maps showing an average yield of 60 bushels

Farm data is one of the issues to be resolved before blockchain can be broadly implemented for traceability as well, stresses the ADC. “Anyone that has been around precision farming knows it is not uncommon to see corn yield maps showing an average yield of 60 bushels. This low yield is not due to any weather or field conditions, but is caused by no one bothering to change the crop type designation on the in-cab monitor to soybeans from corn. Or many precision ag nerds know that the most commonly planted variety is 1, since that is the easiest button to push to get planting when the terminal wants the operator to enter the actual variety loaded into the machine.”

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There are also things farmers can do today to bring additional value to the data being recorded by their machines. Making sure that data is accurately recorded and includes the relevant information is a relatively easy first step.
There are also things farmers can do today to bring additional value to the data being recorded by their machines. Making sure that data is accurately recorded and includes the relevant information is a relatively easy first step.

Each machine or terminal has its own file format

According to the ADC, there is also the issue of the planter being red, the sprayer green, fertiliser spreader yellow, tractor blue, and the combine silver. “Each machine or terminal has its own file format making accessing and sharing a complete record of farm operations within a given field difficult. Groups like AgGateway and their ADAPT Toolkit are really moving the needle on interoperability from the file format standpoint.”

Standardise meanings of different data elements

The ADC says these groups are also starting efforts to take the next step and standardise meanings of different data elements. “For example, one terminal may contain the crop “corn”, another terminal has “maize”, does that mean the yield map is for grain, silage, or round bales. Now that we are starting to bridge the gap of different data formats and “speaking the same language” we need to make sure we all mean the same thing when we use a term.”

Agricultural Data Coalition:

Farms should take a leading role in providing information and connecting to consumers who may not know the difference between a combine and a forage harvester

However, there are also things farmers can do today to bring additional value to the data being recorded by their machines, says the ADC: “Consumers are pushing food processors to know more about where their food comes from. This is a great opportunity for the agriculture community to highlight all the things done to ensure a quality product, and that it is produced responsibly.”

Capture accurate data

“As technology improves the access to data, farms should take a leading role in providing this information and connecting to consumers who may not know the difference between a combine and a forage harvester. Making sure that data is accurately recorded and includes the relevant information is a relatively easy first step. This not only would help with creating the accurate data needed to record in a blockchain, but it also helps with operational analysis. It is very difficult to use data to determine what hybrid preforms best in a specific soil type if the variety planted was not accurately recorded.”

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