Farm machines harvest Big Data, reap privacy worries
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."