Expert opinion

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Do not be too concerned about sharing data

There are no valid reasons for farmers to keep their data as close as a chicken keeps her eggs.

The biggest danger of collecting data on a farm is that they remain unused, collecting dust instead of being looked at, assessed, analysed, connected to information that has already been gathered and being used practically for perfecting crop and farming systems. Common complaints are that data misuse lurks or that companies make money off of farmers’ data while farmers themselves not profit.

Waste of energy

To start with the latter: rapidly put the idea out of your head that you suffer any kind of disadvantage if others do something with your data. It is a waste of your energy to give that a second thought. When someone collects many phone numbers and neatly puts those in alphabetical order or some other form of classification, than those numbers are worth money. You can build a business case around them, for example by making and selling (digital) phone books. That does not automatically mean that once added to the file, my individual phone number has any value. Not even a little bit.

An arable farmer owns his plot and the potatoes he grows on it. Does that make him the owner of the plot’s weekly satellite image? Or the hint of an owner of the number of predicted potatoes this season? I do not think so. Just as he does not own the information that crop advisers of a chips plant gather from him in the old-fashioned way and which they use to determine their purchasing strategy.

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An arable farmer owns his plot and the potatoes he grows on it. Does that make him the owner of the plot’s weekly satellite image? Or the hint of an owner of the number of predicted potatoes this season? - Photo: Peter Roek
An arable farmer owns his plot and the potatoes he grows on it. Does that make him the owner of the plot’s weekly satellite image? Or the hint of an owner of the number of predicted potatoes this season? - Photo: Peter Roek

‘Data goldmine’

Flight Global collects data of aircraft and their movements globally. It analyses them and generates new data and predictions which companies use to outline optimal commercial strategies. The fact that companies need to pay for such reports does not mean that an aircraft’s departure time is of any value. It is no different in agriculture. I sometimes hear things like ‘farmers are sitting on a data goldmine’ and that ‘they must be crazy to just give their data away’. Well, it is not that bad.

Also read: Data ownership questions – and why they’re important

Does this mean that the data farmers collect on their fields or in the milk barn are worthless? Well, no. These data are certainly valuable for the farm’s operational management. The sum of a plot’s soil scans, fuel consumption or tensile strength maps, satellite and drone images, yield maps and organic fertilisation maps etcetera are absolutely valuable if analysed correctly.

Data can drive a revolution in agriculture

In this way, data can drive a revolution in agriculture. Not because anything fundamentally changes. Indeed, experiences and findings have been used since the dawn of man to improve cultivation and cultivation techniques. At the moment however, data collection, data storage, processing and analysis go through an unprecedented revolution because of high-tech and digitisation.

Smart farming and big data will turn out to be the key to a new step in efficiency and sustainability

Indeed impressive and in a number of cases even disruptive. But that is not a valid reason that farmers should keep their data as close as a chicken keeps her eggs. Preferably not. Smart farming and big data will turn out to be the key to a new step in efficiency and sustainability. Many new, intelligent applications are waiting in the coming years, especially in the agricultural sector.

Reasonable level of crop perfection

This means there are chances for some serious innovation. More output and less input, or at least more input efficiency. This is relevant for the Netherlands, but there will probably be even more innovations in other parts of the world. A reasonable level of crop perfection has already been reached in these areas, due to a combination of their relatively small scale, (very) expensive land and a high level of farmers’ education.

A lot still needs to done and developed in order to use the possibilities of (big) data and smart farming well. In the field of data collection and processing, universal readability, connections to new agronomical insights… enough to do.

Big data

Every now and then, the fear pops up that large parties such as tractor manufacturers, chips plants and pesticide producers will collect data from farmers at such a large scale that you can really talk about big data. They might use these data to put farmers in a straightjacket that leads them only one way: towards multinationals.

But that will not happen. I expect that these ‘big boys’ will help farmers to unlock the already generated massive data stream and add mutual value to its growing volume.

I would like to say: do not be too concerned. All help is welcome.

Also read: Data sharing key for AI in agriculture

2 comments

  • Christopher Brewster

    In so far as this article goes fair enough. The trouble is there is a lot more to this story. The real issue is who has the power over the longer term. If all data is given away for free, and without careful oversight and control, then the big players who have the resources will aggregate the data, make money from this (selling back services) but eventually make farmers dependent. The issue is how to protect farmers and how to avoid creating further systemic dependencies (as have already been created by external control of inputs, fertilisers, seeds, etc.). Digitisation of the sector will over time lead to large scale consolidation (or rather accelerate this). Is this really what we want? Can farmers' livelihood and independence be protected and furthered?

  • GUY WAKSMAN

    Excellent paper. You may be interested in this Apps that takes for granted that sharing farming experience will be appreciated.

    >>> ShaYoFae : Share your farming experience

    ShaYoFae, a mobile app that enables information exchanges between farmers.
    See shayofae.com
    http://www.shayofae.com/
    Contact : Hervé ESCRIOU
    E-mail: herve.escriou(a)betadigitis.com

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