Farm machines harvest Big Data, reap privacy worries

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Steps away from a replica of the revolutionary 1837 steel plow at tractor company John Deere's headquarters sits a combine as big as a tank and packed with computer wizardry that harvests huge volumes of valuable data as it gathers crops.

The original "plow that broke the plains" enabled American farms to grow massive swathes of wheat and corn with its lightness and durability. The modern machines are using data to take another giant step in efficiency and output.

But as big agricultural companies pour money into data storage and analytics tools that aim to turn micro detail on crops and furrow-by-furrow weather into more grain for less pain, concerns are growing about how the data might be used and how secure such a gold mine for traders is.

Now, at an unprecedented meeting on Thursday, the national independent farmers' group the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) will try to hammer out guidelines with Deere and fellow industry heavyweights such as Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer - which together control nearly three-quarters of the U.S. corn seed market.

"Virtually every company says it will never share, sell or use the data in a market-distorting way - but we would rather verify than trust," farmer Brian Marshall of the AFBF told the U.S. House Committee on Small Business in February.

The data would be a gold mine to traders in commodity markets and could influence farmland values.

While there are no documented instances so far of data being misused, lengthy contracts packed with open-ended language and differing from one supplier to the next are fueling mistrust.

Privacy and security concerns surrounding data gathering are not confined to agriculture. Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally has called for U.S. legislation and guidelines to protect drivers' privacy as more vehicles are connected to the Internet.

While only around 14 percent of farmers use this kind of precision agriculture technology at the moment, its popularity is expected to soar over the coming years.

"Now is the time to step in and make sure that some of the concerns we have get answered," said Mary Kay Thatcher, a senior director at the AFBF.

Who Really Owns the Data?

Companies like Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and tractor giant John Deere maintain that data produced on the farm by a farmer belongs to that farmer.

But property guidelines surrounding data, which can be copied, aggregated and transmitted at lightning speed, are not as simple as that.

John Deere's enterprise privacy statement, tucked away on its website at, shows that the company can collect data on Deere equipment or any devices connected to it such as an iPad, unless the farmer opts out.

The list of the company's uses for that information includes customer service and marketing, but also "analytics." And data gathered by its machines can be retained by Deere indefinitely.

DuPont Pioneer says anonymized data, including yield and products used as well as GPS location information, can be used and disclosed by the company "for any purpose."

Focus on Farmers

For now, the core value of farm data collected lies in precision planting, farm management and maintenance services sold to farmers.

But big agricultural companies see big profits ahead.

John Deere has said precision services and its "intelligent solutions group" would be a major piece of doubling its size from a $25 billion company in 2010 to a $50 billion company by 2018.

Monsanto underscored its devotion to farm data analytics when it bought weather data-mining company the Climate Corporation in October, describing it as its "entry ticket into a $20 billion market opportunity."

The companies insist their goals are simply to help farmers and point out it is not worth their while to sow distrust.

"It's really important that we earn the trust of the farmer. Doing anything that's malicious or that is low integrity is certainly not a good way to run a business," said Climate Corporation Chief Executive Officer David Friedberg.

But for a commodities trader or investment bank, a broad pool of real-time data about how many acres of soybeans U.S. farmers planted or whether corn yields in Iowa were above expectations could be a gold mine.

Already, feedback from crop tours organized to inspect the harvests are keenly watched and can move markets.

And the concern is that a company might be enticed to venture beyond agronomic services, given that a public company must put its shareholders - and therefore profits - first.

Farmers are keen to know if they would get a share too.

"I want to know if my data is going towards market intelligence or if it's strictly being used for agronomic reasons. If it's market intelligence, I'd like to be compensated for it," said Mark Kenney, a 34-year-old corn and soybean farmer in Nevada, Iowa.

"I'm not going to take them at their word. I'd like to see some sort of legal protections. I don't want my data going somewhere it's not supposed to go."

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