USDA preps for the Internet of Tractors

USDA is looking for commercial solutions to an agricultural data problem, as farmers report basically the same data twice in a process prone to human error.

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The Agriculture Department is looking for a better way to get data from the farm to the spreadsheet.

In a request for information released Feb. 17, USDA asks industry for systems that could help bring simplify the process for farmers to send reports to the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management Agency.

"It wouldn't take a genius to figure out there's a way to streamline this process," said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.

In the current model, farmers collect and report comparable data to both FSA and RMA, and that data is keyed in manually, introducing plenty of opportunities for human error, according to Hurst and the RFI.

The RFI is part of the USDA's Acreage and Crop Reporting Streamlining Initiative (ACRSI), which seeks to produce "a common USDA framework for producer commodity reporting in support of USDA programs."

The RFI seeks commercial solutions that could unify and automate the two agencies' reporting structures, noting that in the age of "precision agriculture," farmers' GPS-enabled tools are capable of digitally capturing much of the needed data.

However, the RFI is somewhat light on details about that data. "It didn't really get to the important part," said Hudson Hollister, founder and executive director of the Data Coalition. He added that standards, which the RFI doesn't explicitly address, are important to ensure that data can function independent of systems.

But Hollister still classified the RFI as a positive step and expressed hope that the USDA would set standards to simplify and liberate agricultural data as the agency moves toward open data.

"Open data is just as much about standards as it is about publication," he said.

The USDA has also been exploring crowdsourced, open-data-powered platforms for public consumption of its data.

Hurst, a farm veteran himself, said ACRSI's work was important progress but expressed doubts about a completely automated system and noted, as farmers have before, that crop producers need to retain some control over their data. Instead, farmers should have the final approval to transmit their data to the government.

"I'm sure all of us would be uncomfortable if [the USDA system] was connected directly to our [yield planning tools]," Hurst said.

The RFI asks respondents to highlight commercial tools that could meet USDA's requirements and be scalable for the future.

Responses are due by 4 p.m. on March 17.

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