Farmers Press Agribusiness Giants for Data Security

Growers and ranchers don’t want to give up control of their information

Don Villwock, a corn, wheat, and soybean grower in Indiana, stores farm records going back three decades on a computer that has no Internet connection. He’s not a Luddite: Villwock worries that his sales and crop yield data might fall into the wrong hands and compromise his business. In this age of Big Data and massive customer information security breaches, that’s not a casual concern.

At coffee shops and tractor dealerships across the Corn Belt, the debate about the collection and security of proprietary data has flared up in the last year as national and state farm bureaus push for the establishment of data use guidelines by companies. For years, farmers have shared crop yield and soil data with some of the world’s largest agribusinesses to help develop technologies that make American farmers among the most productive on the planet. DuPont, Monsanto, and Deere have developed powerful software that can determine optimal seed spacing or more accurately predict local weather patterns. The flip side: Big ag companies could now control a data trove that presents privacy and business risks to farmers who don’t want to share the secrets of their trade with rivals or the government.

“As farmers and ranchers, we often choose to exchange our information for access to products and services,” Bob Stallman, the American Farm Bureau Federation president, said at the group’s convention in mid-January. “More and more farmers are rightly concerned about who owns or controls all of the information they are sending back to the companies that provide the technology.”

Farmers like Villwock say they worry that ag-related companies might misuse or accidentally release proprietary business information, exposing them to government auditors interested in scrutinizing their finances or environmental activists looking to protest fertilizer and pesticide use. “I am a little gun-shy,” says Villwock, who farms 4,000 acres.

Monsanto, the world’s largest seed producer, has spent more than $1.1 billion to buy data-analytics businesses that help farmers micromanage their fields and stay ahead of weather changes. The company plans to charge $10 an acre this year for its Precision Planting service, whose technology boosted corn yields by 5 bushels to 10 bushels an acre in field tests last year. Climate Corp., a startup Monsanto acquired in November, promises to increase yields by as much as 50 bushels an acre through the use of “hyperlocal” weather monitoring and predictive models. The two businesses could in time generate sales of $20 billion a year, according to Monsanto executives.

Farmers say they’re concerned they won’t receive any compensation or benefit if data the companies are collecting are sold to others. The information may not be as valuable as some groups are making it out to be. Nor is it always accurate. Some farmers already share data with their grain brokers to help predict crop yields and grain prices. Real-time combine data predicted that 2013 corn yields would be revised upward to about 165 bushels, according to Daniel Basse, president and founder of AgResource, a Chicago-based farm research firm. Yet a U.S. Department of Agriculture report on Jan. 10 cut corn yield estimates to 158.8 bushels an acre.

Deere launched an online platform called MyJohnDeere in 2012 that lets farmers access, archive, and share information about their equipment, production data, and other aspects of their operations. It’s also working with DuPont, Dow Chemical, and BASF to help farmers crunch real-time data to optimize production in much the same way makers of everything from frozen pizza to pickup trucks do. There’s a “tremendous opportunity” for farmers to use data to improve efficiency and productivity, says Cory Reed, senior vice president of Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group.

Farmers may not be as receptive to such pitches against the backdrop of recent corporate (Target) and government (National Security Agency) security breaches. Last February the Environmental Protection Agency, which gathers farm and livestock information to monitor air and water quality, inadvertently released to environmental groups personal data on about 80,000 growers and ranchers, including names, addresses, and phone numbers.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, as well as state bureaus in Illinois and Missouri, have met with equipment, seed, and chemical companies in recent months to hammer out policies governing the use of information. They’re asking companies to provide full disclosure of the data’s intended use and give farmers multiple chances to opt in or out. Farmers are trying to sort through the “confusing” differences in agreements offered by companies, says Doug Yoder, a senior director at the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Deere and Monsanto executives say they recognize farmers own their data and stress they don’t want to risk losing customers by jeopardizing their trust. “For the sake of individual data pieces, we are not going to trade in a relationship we spent 175 years building,” Reed says.

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