Around 60% of the decisions on the farm of Australian grower Brad Jones are data driven. He is not afraid his data will be used for the wrong purpose. “If a company can use our data for making a more efficient and cost-effective system, I am all for that.”
Brad Jones and his wife Kate run a 11,000-hectare broadacre farm near Tammin in Western Australia. Mr Jones is an early adopter of agtech and also non-executive chair and shareholder of Origo, a company that manufactures a system to provide real-time data monitoring, data analysis and automatic map generation.
His company, Bungulla Farming, has its own system that picks up signals from 16 weather stations and moisture probes to automatically generate moisture maps, aggregate data on temperature, relative humidity, rainfall and Delta T conditions for spraying. All the machines on the farm are tracked and Mr Jones and his staff can see at any time what machines are working and were.
Mr Jones uses a range of different assets throughout the season. The farm therefore generates multiple data sets, he says. “We have data from machinery, our soil-testing, financial data… There are so many different data sets. We’ve got a lot of data that we store. For example, we have an extensive system for our weather-data. We manage that ourselves with our own on-farm server.”
We can say: there’s our yield data, where do we want to have look at?
And there is also the data generated with John Deere machines, Mr Jones points out. “That’s a big data capturing source. Wether it is yield or applied chemistries. We use that data from an operational point of view, so I can see where the sprayers or tractors are working. But we also use it for planning. We can say: there’s our yield data, where do we want to have look at? Why is there an anomaly – good or bad – in that paddock?”
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The farmer from Western Australia says the use of on-farm data offers a lot of benefits. “I don’t think that us as a company being part of a larger data-set, is necessarily a bad thing. If John Deere is using our data to build a better product, it is only positive. The idea would be to provide us with better service. And if a company like storage and handling facility CBH can use the data of our grain flows for making a more efficient and cost-effective system, I am all for that.”
I think that the data, created by larger companies like Deere or Summit (fertilisers), is not sold to other parties. The risk for them would be too great
Mr Jones is not afraid that the current situation in data ownership in Australia can lead to his data being used for the wrong purpose. “I think that the data, created by larger companies like Deere or Summit (fertilisers), is not sold to other parties. The risk for them would be too great. They would suffer from reputational damage as a consequence.”
Unlike others, Mr Jones sees no need for governments to regulate the use of farm data. “I think governments should stay out of it”, he emphasises. “As soon as you have any government interference, you add another level of complexity. Regardless of which government it is, they are good regulators but poor managers. So, I think it is best that they stay away from this.”
Even without government regulation, the use of on-farm data-use is extremely complex, Mr Jones says. “It is therefore better for growers to get the assistance of people that are trained to work with data. They can help to get the benefits out of it, whatever the objectives of a farm business are.”
According to a report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), there are concerns in some farming communities about the regulatory environment governing the data collected on and about farms.
These concerns can potentially affect the farmers’ willingness to adopt digital solutions, the report says. For some farmers, an important question is: who controls access the data that are generated on and about farms, and how is the created value from that data re-distributed?
An often-expressed view is that farmers should own their data. However, this is a complex topic at the intersection of different regulatory frameworks, including: contract and competition law, intellectual property rights, personal data protection and privacy.
Emerging voluntary initiatives, such as codes of conduct and farmer data co-operatives, could help to increase awareness among authorities of the needs and priorities of farmers, the report says.
You‘d be pretty naive to think that’s not being on sold to others
West Australian grain grower and agronomist Doug Smith is one of the farmers that are afraid that their information is shared with third party companies. “You know it’s tremendously valuable, and they’re exceptionally good at extracting maximum value out of everything they do”, he told Australian broadcaster ABC. “You‘d be pretty naive to think that’s not being on sold to others.”
Mr Smith said manufacturer John Deere has a policy stating it may share data with affiliates. He is worried the information is shared with companies involved in anything from finance to fertiliser. John Deere has stated however that customers are always in control of their data, and choose if, or who, they share their data with based on the permissions farmers set.
Australian Professor Leanne Wiseman of the Griffith University, who contributed to the OECD report, pointed out earlier that current privacy laws only protect farmers’ personal details, not their farm data. She said that agronomic or productivity data is not protected by privacy law in Australia. “We see a gap in our regulatory regime around farm data”, she explained.
Professor Wiseman also helped to develop the Australian Farm Data Code of the National Farmers Federation (NFF). The code took three years of consultation with the agricultural industry. It is a self-regulated code that should be a guide for farmers on how to assess and manage their data use. And it offers a framework for companies offering data collection services.
The federation is now working on an accreditation system to improve the code’s uptake and impact. The NFF says it hopes to address concerns farmers have about unsolicited data use and data monetisation. According to the NFF, there have been some examples where companies have been found to be on-selling data to third parties, but this happened mostly in an aggregated format so individual farmers could not be identified.