July 30, 2014

Farmers question whether emerging technology helps or hinders

Farmers use technology such as GPS and weather reports these days to save time and money and increase crop yields, and many are being asked to share their data collected from that technology.

The sharing issue has raised many worries about security and privacy.

The American Farm Bureau Federation recently met with officials from six, large “agricultural technology” companies to discuss those concerns.

Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations for the federation, says the new question is whether to share all the different data for agronomists to sift through and to help improve efficiency.

“If you’re a farmer you don’t want to have to go in and read a data privacy policy from John Deere, because that’s the kind of equipment you have, and a different one from Monsanto because that’s the kind of seed that you put in, and a different one from Precision Planting because that’s the actual technology that you use — and try to figure out what’s going on there. We’d like to try and get some of these definitions and terms standardized,” Thatcher says.

Farmers want to know exactly how their data will be used and who will have access to it. Thatcher says the vast majority of companies that offer “ag tech” services say they will make the details anonymous.

“Usually it means I’ll remove the name if I have the Social Security number, if I have an address, a phone number etcetera. But lots of time they are not removing the GPS locations — because it’s the GPS locations that say ‘put more fertilizer on this part of the field’,” she explains.

The problem is, those GPS coordinates are a big key to other information: “If you’ve got the GPS coordinates, you pretty much know who I am and what farm I’m farming on,” Thatcher says.

There are questions about who gets to see all the aggregated information. For example, could the U.S. EPA identify farmers who idle their equipment for what it considers too long to be good for air quality? Or could a seed dealer learn how planting is going for local farmers and use that information to compete in their own fields? Or could investment banks and traders use it to make a lot of money on commodities markets?