Thursday, December 18, 2014

SCHLAGECK: The ‘Big data’ deal

By JOHN SCHLAGECK, Kansas Farm Bureau | 7/24/2014

Some believe “big data” may be the next renaissance in agriculture. Others call it the greatest advance in agriculture since the Green Revolution during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s when one of the biggest waves of research and technology spurred the growth of agricultural production around the world. Some compare big data with the biotech revolution.

High praise, but still so many questions remain about big data. Pressing questions facing farmers now are who owns this big data?

Who controls it and how will it be used?

And if you don’t know what big data is join the crowd, there are countless people who don’t know or have multiple and diverse answers.

Not to alarm anyone, but less than a year ago, few people had heard this buzz word that means gathering and analyzing the vast amount of digital information produced by farmers.

Drones flying above farm land recording high resolution images, and field sensors providing immediate information concerning crop conditions including moisture, nutrients, pests, etc., might become commonplace during the big ag-data era.

No matter what beatitudes are bestowed on big data, most believe and hope it will improve farmers’ yields and productivity. Some say it will help feed the growing population expected to hit 9 billion in 2050. Agri-business companies are banking on its future.

Successful farmers and ranchers have always kept data. While it may have begun when the first cave man dug a hole in the soil and planted the first seed and progressed to a pocket-sized notebook and pencil, keeping and gathering information has always been beneficial to profitable agriculture.

About the mid-1990s, gathering data rocketed forward as computer technology fueled the concept of precision agriculture. This only intensified with the application and interest driven by the ever-growing data infrastructure. Greater affordability of this technology coupled with more computer processing power has also fanned the usage flames.

Prescriptive planting or relating soil, climate and seed data with a farmer’s productions records seems to be some of the potential of big data in agriculture. The potential for an increase in grain yields is another potential.

During the past couple years the Guettermans in Johnson County and Miami counties have used big data equipment provided by John Deere on their family farm. Nick Guetterman believes the more information he has at his disposal, the more likely he is to figure a better way to do things.

What he’s most interested in during this initial phase of using these new data collecting tools is to become even more efficient, farm as productively as possible and increase the return on his investment.

“Farmers collect data on almost every pass over the field — planting data, tillage data, spraying records and machine performance,” Guetterman said. “We’re trying to help use this data in real time – right now to make decisions that potentially make us better, more profitable farmers. Before we always looked at this data and analyzed it after the fact.”

But who gets that information — the farmer or the provider? Will they be prescribing what best suits their interests or those of the farmer?

Guetterman believes because he’s paid for the equipment, the data should belong to him and not be shared with anyone without his knowledge and permission. He’d also like to know where and what companies collecting big ag data are doing with this information.

The Johnson/Miami county farmer says he’s been told the data is not being used individually but in an aggregate format. Guetterman also believes companies selling ag-data services acknowledge farmers’ concerns in their policy and marketing statements, but their contracts don’t make that explicit,

“A farmer makes decisions based on his own experience and expertise, supplemented with his own data,” Guetterman said. “That’s how I produce value as a manager.”

Some producers also worry the proliferation of ag data will erode the advantages  producers have developed throughout several generations. Farmers like Guetterman also harbor real concerns about data privacy. That’s the world today’s farmers live in.

Stay tuned.

John Schlageck is a Farm Bureau commentator, specializing in agriculture and rural Kansas.

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