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From Issue #43 May 22, 2014

Data Harvesting

Farmers consider — and worry about — large-scale cloud-based data collection.

By Nancy Gohring Twitter icon 

The eBee from senseFly

The unpredictable nature of growing crops has always pushed farmers to try the latest technology. Once, that involved switching from horse-drawn plows to gasoline-powered engines in tractors and combines. Now, it includes big data, cloud computing, and iPads.

Just ask Joe Sullivan. He’s in charge of technology for JR Farms, his family’s 10,000-acre spread in Franklin, Minnesota. He started out 15 years ago collecting yield data from his combine. Back then, in order to connect the yield to a spot on the field, he had to use FM radio transmitters to try to improve the accuracy of GPS. The setup provided accuracy within about a foot on the field. However, driving the combine past a metal barn would badly skew the location results — sometimes by miles.

Today, the GPS he uses is accurate to the inch. He’s able to collect a rich stream of data from his harvester about soil, elevation, moisture, and yield. He transfers information collected by the harvester to machines that spread fertilizer and seed, which adjust themselves to apply less in areas that consistently have a lower yield, saving money. Likewise, the spreaders apply more fertilizer in areas that are measurably more productive, in hopes of boosting yields further.

Because the data is stored in the cloud, he can access analyses from an iPad in the fields, where he can stand in a problem area and look up what kind of seed he used and how much fertilizer he applied at that precise spot. Cloud storage also makes him less worried about a hardware failure on his home computer that could erase this valuable information.

Sullivan is a very early adopter. Only a small number of farmers engage in similar precision agriculture. The USDA reports that in 2006, the most recent survey year, adoption of yield monitoring equipment was around 45 percent, but use of GPS and technology that applies fertilizer at variable rates was closer to 15 percent. Since farmers tend to work on a 20-year upgrade cycle, things might not have changed all that much, says Melissa Lloyd, a consultant who has been tracking technology and agriculture for Lloyd Advisors.

Even farmers who use that combination of technology rely on a thumb drive to transfer data from the combines to computers in their homes, where they use local software to develop prescriptions for their planter and fertilizer machines. The cloud-based technology Sullivan uses— taking some of the work out of analyzing the stream of measurements and allowing for real-time and ubiquitous access to the data — has only been around for about a year.

No one has a good count of how many (or few) farmers seed their fields from these cloud services, but many farmers are talking about it. The vendors say it can take some of the headache out of managing the technology required for the most sophisticated forms of precision agriculture.

As much as farmers are talking about the potential behind the new cloud-based services, they’re now also talking about the downsides: in some cases, the services require them to relinquish control of their data to huge agribusinesses.

Suspicious minds

Precision Planting recently started using cloud storage and processing for farm data; Monsanto bought the company in 2010. In four states, Monsanto is now also offering a service called FieldScripts, which builds on Precision Planting technology to analyze data collected on the farm and then recommend the seeds farmers should use.

The combination of Monsanto and the cloud has caused some concern about what might happen to the collected information. “If Monsanto hadn’t bought [Precision Planting], it would have been a quieter issue for a while,” Sullivan says.

Some farmers are worried about the implication of buying data services from a company that sells an array of farm “inputs,” the term farmers use to describe goods they have to buy, such as seed, fertilizer, and pest-control products. “You get some concern amongst farmers that they will get locked in to one system, where they’re almost forced to buy inputs from them because that’s where the recommendations [based on the data] are coming from,” says Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau and a farmer who, with his family, works 6,000 acres. That kind of lock-in could happen if the data services company recommends a product, such as a seed, that only it sells.

That would allow a firm like Monsanto to raise prices on inputs based on the data they’re seeing from farms, Lloyd says. “A lot of farmers are saying, ‘Hey, I’ll give you my data and see if this works, but the first time I see a purposeful price increase around a harvest, I’m out,’” she says. “Everybody loves to hate Monsanto, but they also do some good things, and analytics is one of them. Their technology has really outpaced some of the others. But they have a lot to do in terms of earning trust.”

Monsanto, which did not reply to a request for comment for this story, recently told USA Today that it will suggest products from competitors if that’s the best solution for the farmer. Doing otherwise would undermine Monsanto’s credibility, a spokesman for The Climate Corp., a Monsanto company, told the paper.

Even what may seem like benign metrics from a farm could be valuable to competitors, commodity traders, and vendors. For instance, Brian Marshall, who farms 4,100 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat in Missouri, can generate a map on his iPad that shows how fast his planter was moving through the field during the day. That may tell him that a driver was traveling at 7 miles per hour instead of 5 mph, which might get the job done faster but with worse results.

Combined with yield information, that data could be valuable to competitors. In fact, some of the data-services companies are talking about aggregating and anonymizing the data they collect so that farmers can look at what their peers are doing. A farmer might learn, for instance, that neighbors plant at 5.5 miles an hour and have a much better yield, says Corbett Kull, co-founder of 640 Labs, a company that has developed technology that plugs into the standard diagnostic port of farming equipment like tractors and harvesters and then delivers data analysis.

Precision Planting, which Sullivan uses, also plans to aggregate data. The agreement he signed lets Precision use his data to help it improve its products, he says. But he had the option to let Precision add his data to the aggregate and opted not to for fear that someone might be able to view it and figure out which farm the information came from.

Farmers also worry about traders in agriculture futures getting their hands on yield data for an unfair advantage. Typically, such traders rely on yield data that’s made public to everyone at the same time by the USDA.

The potential came into focus last year, when the government shutdown prevented the monthly release of USDA yield data. At the same time, John Deere was doing a trial of a new system that uploads that information from hundreds of combines in real time, Hurst says. That data wasn’t shared or stolen, but he says that if it had been, it would have been particularly valuable to commodity traders at that time, because nobody had aggregated statistics. (John Deere did not reply to repeated requests for comment.)

The upside

Farmers like Sullivan and Marshall remain interested in this combination of real-time measurement, despite their concerns, because they see tremendous benefits that could outweigh the risks. In Minnesota, where Sullivan grows corn and soybeans, the technology investment makes clear sense. He says it’s fair to estimate a two percent or greater increase in his corn yield due to his use of Precision Planting and other technologies. That adds up to $16 an acre.

Mark Nelson, a commodities staffer at the Kansas Farm Bureau, talked to one farmer who uses advanced data services on his irrigated corn fields and cut his fertilizer bill by $30 an acre.

There are less tangible benefits too, like being able to access data while in the fields rather than only in front of a computer. And the farmers that are collecting these details hope ultimately to extract even more value from it, although currently the flood of data is holding some of them back.

“We have all this yield data and soil data and weather data and data data data,” says Todd Golly, who farms 6,000 acres of corn and soybeans in Minnesota. He has begun using drones to collect images of his fields and is now selling drones to farmers. He’s finding some pushback. “Some farmers are worried, ‘Am I going to buy this $25,000 drone and take pictures and get a bunch more data that I’m not going to use?’” he says.

“The amount of information that a farmer can keep track of now is pretty astounding,” Marshall says. “I can generate so many maps after planting that it’s mind-boggling. All of us are probably guilty of generating a lot more data than we actually utilize.”

Farmers have some options to reap more of the benefits of large-scale data collection while retaining more control over their details. It’s still possible to store much of the information locally. Marshall has opted out of the cloud component of Precision Planting’s service. It was partly the cost, and partly because he might switch to a different planter next year, which in turn could change the way he’s using gathered measurements. He’s also curious to see what happens over the next 10 months or so in terms of data-security assurances.

New options are also coming, like one from 640 Labs. Its hardware collects data from any of the sensors built into the machines. It uses the cloud to analyze and store the information, which leaves open the question of security. But because 640 Labs is independent, farmers may brush away that issue for the moment. “One of the biggest differentiators is we are unbiased,” Kull says. “We don’t sell planter equipment, we don’t sell seed, and we don’t sell chemicals. So I’m not biased toward any outcome other than I’m trying to make sure the farmer maximizes the amount of money he makes off the land.”

There’s also Grower Information Services Cooperative, an organization owned by its farmer members that is building an exchange for farm information. Members agree that farmers own and should be able to totally control all information generated on their farms. It is setting up an exchange through which farmers could sell their data and benefit directly from it.

No matter which route farmers take, at least for some crops and in certain regions, more are likely to start using these technologies because of the potential to boost efficiency and the bottom line. That means one thing’s for sure: farmers should expect to spend a lot more time wrestling with technology.

Sullivan says he spends about half his time managing technology for his farm. Marshall is also the go-to person on his farm for technology issues. “I’m the unofficial tech guru for the farm, for better or for worse,” he said. “I spend more time on the phone with tech support or troubleshooting than I’d like to. But I think it’s worth it.”

Photos: eBee courtesy senseFly. Equipment courtesy 640Labs. Cab display courtesy Brian Marshall.

Nancy Gohring’s work has appeared in Wired, the New York Times, the Economist Babbage blog, MIT Technology Review, Computerworld, CITEworld, ITworld, and many other publications. She started writing about cell phones when they were huge and expensive, and now covers a wide range of technology and science topics.

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