Big Data, Big Ag...Big Brother?

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The jury is out over how concerned farmers are about data privacy. Some say they’re vehemently opposed to the thought of their numbers floating around in the cloud. Others argue that growers don’t mind at all — they just want a fair trade.

In late September, the American Farm Bureau released an excellent series of educational stories and videos about Big Data’s impact on agriculture. (Check out — 

The series is informative and exhaustive. Clearly, this is an emerging issue worthy of attention.

Or is it?

Some experts say that it is not so much that farmers are feeling paranoid about sharing their data, but that they want something fair in exchange.

“There’s a very small portion of the market that is worried about pure privacy, but I see a large portion of the market that is concerned about what they get in return for sharing their data,” says Benjamin Allen, chief revenue officer of Agri-Data Solution, a precision farm management software company. “It’s not a privacy issue — it’s a transactional issue. We’re hearing farmers ask questions more about what value  they get in return for sharing their data.”

Allen points to similarities with consumers’ use of Google Maps on their smart phones. “The thinking here is, ‘I am willing to share my location if you can help route me to my destination,” says Allen. “But if all you are doing is taking my location information for your benefit, I am no longer interested in sharing it.”

What the experts do agree on is that the first step is to understand your current agreement with any farm data service providers.

“It’s really easy when you read in a farm magazine or hear a radio announcement that XYZ company says, ‘Here’s our principles: We won’t sell your data, we won’t share it, we won’t use it for anything else,’” Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director, Congressional Relations for the AFB, said in a July interview. “What you better make sure of is that the contract that you sign with the company mirrors the principles that you think are so important, because often times, maybe by sleight of hand, maybe on purpose, the principles don’t match the contract. And what matters to a farmer is the signature he puts on the piece of paper. So as laborious as it is, and we’re working on that, make sure you read the contract before you sign it.” 

At the same time, the AFB acknowledges the huge potential of Big Data in agriculture — not just how it could benefit agribusiness, but how it could help farmers in a practical, if not daily, way. 

Agri-Trend’s Allen agrees that such software could be pivotal for farmers’ profitability — if the terms are equitable.

“They should be learning things they could not expect to learn on their own,” says Allen. “And that in return, their individual data is still being respected and used appropriately.”

In choosing a data partner, ultimately it comes down to ‘buyer beware’, experts agree. As monotonous as reading the fine print of your Terms and Conditions agreement may be — it’s a very good idea.

For example, the technology in your new farm equipment may have the capacity for wireless data transfer. If that’s the case — find out what they’re doing with the data. You may have control over your individual data, but the equipment manufacturer may expect to be able to use autonomous, aggregated data for equipment optimization or, in the case of a seed or biotech company, for agronomic optimization.

For its part, AFB is taking the threat of farmers getting the short end of the stick seriously.

So are other media outlets (Check out the excellent series on —

For its part, the AFB is organizing meetings to discuss the topics that concern farmers — security, privacy, traceability and portability.

North of the border, Denis Tremorin, the director of sustainability at Pulse Canada, says it’s important to set up a system now so that farmers will feel they can trust that their data won’t be misused going forward.

“We get this pushback in terms of ‘I don’t want people knowing about my specific farm.’ So, there’s got be trust in the system in terms of anonymous data,” says Tremorin. 

“At the start of the process, you’re not going to push those farmers, the fearful ones, to participate. You start with the ones who are interested and those who can see the value.”

One solution — Develop pilot projects that show producers the value. Tremorin says this will help farmers see the value of knowing what’s going on over the fence — metaphorically, not literally.

Brian Sterling is the managing director of the Global Traceability Center in Washington, D.C., though Sterling is based in Oakville, Ontario.

When asked if the fear of Big Data in ag is valid, he says, “It’s a legitimate fear, but it’s easily addressed. You have to make sure producers understand that this is not about a giant repository of data sitting somewhere on a server. The flow of data is controlled.”

According to Sterling, there are two groups who might be asking for data — the government and businesses in the ag or food sectors. 

With the government, you’re going to have to comply. With business, it will come down to whether you want to make a sale, or not.

“I’m saying, ‘Let’s start cautiously’,” says Tremorin. “Whatever system is designed, it must allow the producers to get a benefit back out of it.”


About the Author
Lila MacLellan

Lila MacLellan is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City. She is originally from Toronto and has lived in Vancouver, Sapporo, and Montreal.

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