How safe is farmers’ data if FBN goes public?

11-08 | Updated on 17-10 | |
Modern combines accurately record yield per square metre in real time. Very valuable information that farmers share with FBN to determine the effects of different cultivation strategies. And potentially also which combine brands, for example, perform best.
Modern combines accurately record yield per square metre in real time. Very valuable information that farmers share with FBN to determine the effects of different cultivation strategies. And potentially also which combine brands, for example, perform best.

Farmers Business Network (FBN) is growing like crazy with enormous potential in the processing of data that they receive from their growers. To expand their business, they seek capital. Now rumours that they will go public are increasing. What does that mean for farmers’ data?

In May 2021, Farmers Business Network had a membership of 25,000 farmers operating 70 million acres across the US, Australia and Canada. This spring, it had risen to 43,000 farmers operating 98 million acres. Many of these members share data with each other to receive a wide range of benefits, but how might this data be handled differently if the company goes public?

There are strong rumours that this may happen, but FBN will not comment on the rumours. FBN is estimated to be worth at least $4 billion USD, and a large part of that valuation is data, which drives most of the company’s products and services. For simplicity’s sake, dividing the estimated valuation over the 43,000 members makes each member’s data set worth over $100,000 USD, an amount that can only increase in the future.

FBN began in 2014 in the US as an online site where members (membership is created with a free account) could compare prices for seed varieties, then other inputs. Members are generally large grain farmers. Later, FBN added the ability to purchase inputs (in the US, crop protection products and seed for example), low-cost input financing, crop and health insurance, and many data analysis tools.

Acces to various reports

In terms of data, at the basic level, any member can access various reports. By inputting their farm information, members can access soil and terrain maps, weather data and satellite imagery/crop health monitoring for their specific fields.

FBN makes it as easy as possible to submit data, with a team available to help members upload (using an app) to a platform that integrates data from any of the available precision ag systems.
FBN makes it as easy as possible to submit data, with a team available to help members upload (using an app) to a platform that integrates data from any of the available precision ag systems.

Other services are available to those members who choose to submit data into the aggregated (and anonymous) pool, such as benchmarking, yield predictions, price transparency reports and seed labeling reports. FBN makes it as easy as possible to submit data, with a team available to help members upload (using an app) to a platform that integrates data from any of the available precision ag systems.

FBN members can also participate in the ‘On-Farm R&D Trial Program’ which tests new technologies from biologicals to robots and sensors. In return for providing trial data, members receive trial products at no cost, access to free agronomy support during the trial, access to aggregated analysis of the trial data and a payment depending on trial complexity. This year, the program is expected to be the largest collective agricultural trial in history.

For a small cost, members can also access the ‘Gradable Plan,’ which includes soil sampling and associated farm-specific specific fertility recommendations. The ‘Gradable’ program helps farmers access low-carbon grain markets and ‘ Gradable Carbon’ assists farmers to generate and market low carbon grain and carbon credits.

FBN Co-founder Charles Baron believes that the company’s success lies in its complete focus on farmers, enabling them through shared data to lower their costs and maximizing crop performance and profits. “We are radically farmer focused,” says Baron. “We pay attention to what farmers say they want. Since we started, we’ve continually received requests for more services and tools for every aspect of farming.”

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Data study

A US study published in 2021 on farm data by ‘Trust In Food’ and the ‘Sustainability Consortium’ has some conclusions that relate to the type of data services provided by FBN.

70% of the famers don’t trust private companies with their data according to a recent study in the US.
70% of the famers don’t trust private companies with their data according to a recent study in the US.

Only 43% of the surveyed farmers reported that the data they collect themselves plays an important role in deciding how they manage their farm operations. Seeming to describe what FBN is doing (with aggregated data), the report authors advise that “organizations can focus on the added value of increased data collection as an engagement tactic that goes beyond tracking farm profitability and allows farmers to manage their operations more holistically. There are more benefits to increasing the amount of farm-level data beyond profits and input monitoring. Amplifying the added value of data collection could engage farmers more deeply and highlight how to use their farm-level data more comprehensively to benefit their entire operations.”

However, over 70% of respondents said they don’t trust private companies with their data. The report authors concluded that “farmers’ concerns about how their data will be used and shared is the single biggest issue preventing their digital transitions,” and that “significant progress in data privacy and governance is required to overcome this barrier.”

Data agreements

In terms of how FBN data is handled, FBN (along with about 30 other entities) is certified by ‘Ag Data Transparent,’ an organization that verifies compliance with the ‘Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data’ adopted by the American Farm Bureau Federation in 2014.

The certification process begins with 11 questions on many aspects of farm data, including whether agreements with users address ownership of user data and whether users can ‘opt out’ of including data in anonymized/aggregated datasets accessible by other users. Other questions focus on whether companies will notify users if a data breach happens, whether users are asked to agree to any changes in data agreements and whether agreements address what happens to user data if the tech provider is sold to another company, for example. How FBN answers the 11 questions can be found here.

Todd Janzen, certification administrator at Ag Data Transparent, recognizes that the certification process doesn’t have the ability to go into companies behind the scenes and audit them to make sure they are complying with what they have agreed to do. ““However, the fact that certified companies have publicly committed to addressing the core principles is significant, and if they are using data in way that is inconsistent with their certification, they put themselves in potential legal jeopardy.”

Janzen notes that because a company has to undertake certification again if its data contracts are altered has meant they don’t change them often.

Whether FBN goes public, under the certification, the company “will not sell and/or disclose non-aggregated farm data to a third party without first securing a legally-binding commitment to be bound by the same terms and conditions [it already] has with the farmer. Farmers must be notified if such a sale is going to take place and have the option to opt out or have their data removed prior to that sale.” Certified firms also promise to “not share or disclose original farm data with a third party in any manner that is inconsistent with the contract with the farmer. If the agreement with the third party is not the same as the agreement with the ATP, farmers must be presented with the third party’s terms for agreement or rejection.”

Farmers must be notified if such a sale is going to take place and have the option to opt out or have their data removed prior to that sale

In terms of FBN’s future plans for using members’ data, Baron says “right now, we’re very focused on the ‘On-Farm R&D Trial Program’ and building up partnerships for that, but we’re always focused on how our own aggregated data and open source data be used to provide more benefits to farmers.”

“You can always do better in anything by looking beyond your own operation,” he says. “It’s the difference between just using your own strip trials and learning from thousands of trials on similar farms. We have a lot of new digital innovations in the pipeline for crop production and market intelligence as well, developing tools that identify trends that the data is showing, and also combining that with member surveys to be able to deliver more insight for everyone.”

Contacts for publication records

Hein
Treena Hein Correspondent for Canada



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