Big data

Agricultural data is a new cash crop, but who reaps the harvest?

Shutterstock image: blue data streams.

Pop some sensors on a tractor and you're suddenly advancing a whole new agricultural revolution.

But who owns the data you generate?

Farmers laid out their big data situation in a House Agriculture Committee hearing Oct. 28, sharing concerns about property rights, privacy and market manipulation.

A central concern was the fact that farmers don't necessarily own the data they generate, depending on the contracts they sign with machine-supply companies. And that data could be worth big money.

"If 1,000 machines randomly spread across the Corn Belt were recording yield data on the second day of harvest, that information would be extremely valuable to traders dealing in agricultural futures," said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, in his prepared testimony. "Traders have traditionally relied on [time-delayed] private surveys and U.S. Department of Agriculture yield data…[b]ut now, real-time yield data is available to whoever controls those databases."

Legally speaking, "it's not, by definition, insider information," noted Oklahoma State University agriculture law professor Dr. Shannon Ferrell. "It's just really good market intelligence."

Yet even if farmers do get paid for that valuable data they generate, they may not be certain whether they can control or delete data stored in the databases of big companies such as AGCO The Climate Corporation, witnesses noted.

Of course, those big companies offer services, helping farmers optimize water and nitrogen distribution based on soil fertility readings and weather predictions. And as Hurst noted in his testimony, farmer co-ops and businesses have been working together to hash out property rights and privacy concerns.

"[F]armers prefer this teamwork, 'business-to-business' approach over a regulatory or legislative 'fix' because we believe the market will provide the process to address problems if farmers have an equal footing with agribusinesses," Hurst said. "If we rely on the government to make changes, the undue overhead might irreversibly deter innovation."

Government could, however, play a role as a partner in data-driven programs, Hurst noted. He also called for exploration of agricultural data repositories, "akin to a bank," where farmers could stash and retrieve their agronomic data securely.

"People have privacy concerns omni-directionally," Ferrell noted, saying the discussion of agronomic data rights could help inform broader discussions of who owns consumer-generated data such as Amazon search histories.

And while farmers called for a light hand, legislators voiced interest in getting involved.

"There may very well be some things we need to do to protect markets," said Mike Conaway (R-Texas) "This data, particularly during harvest, is going to be stunningly valuable."

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.

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