Ensuring Data Privacy In Agriculture

Just about every company connected to agriculture is or is trying to gather data from the farmer. So attests Kris Tom, co-owner of Tom Farms, Leesburg, IN. Such a tsunami of activity confirms not only the value of growers’ information but the need to clarify the legal rights and responsibilities surrounding its use.

Indeed, data privacy has become such an important issue that the American Farm Bureau Federation led a coalition of major farm organizations and agriculture technology providers (ATPs) in drawing up and ultimately signing an agreement on the topic in late 2014. As of May 2015, 34 companies and associations had signed on.

Then too, the House of Representatives’ agriculture committee held a hearing just last October — called “Big Data and Agriculture: Innovation and Implications” — that addressed many data issues, including privacy and security. A number of high profile players in this arena testified, including representatives from The Climate Corp. and AGCO.

Assessing Value

The value of ag data to ATPs is clear. In fact, Dr. Terry Griffin, Associate Professor in Ag Economics, Oklahoma State University, emphasizes that aggregation potential is key for unlocking the full potential of data in enhancing agri-food production, supply chain efficiency and risk management.

But growers are asking what the costs and benefits of sharing data or participating in Big Data communities are for individual farmers. The jury is still out.

For growers, the benefits of sharing data are “still nebulous right now. They haven’t been proven by industry or academia,” says Griffin. Many growers do not see how the benefits will outweigh the costs of joining/sharing. These costs are not even subscription fees but rather perceived unknown costs, he points out.

“I would say most companies aren’t utilizing the data for the benefit of the grower, or return an economic value to farmers,” says grower Tom.

Keith Gingerich, Gingerich Farms, Lovington, IL, has doubts as well. For instance, his farm gives trial plot data to a seed company and doesn’t get much back. “Our biggest frustration is getting feedback or information back that we can use. We put the work into it,” he points out. He does see the trial results out in publications in broad recommendations, but would say to companies, “let’s bring it back to my region or my farm and let me look at it.”

Another question Gingerich has: Are seed companies pricing product higher because they know the value of the hybrid based on vital information he supplied on yield potential, for instance?

Tom Farms’ Tom has found there are quite a few providers and suppliers that “control” the data after it hits their servers. “The problem we see with this is that they can typically do what they wish with it after that point in time, such as sell it to third party or use it in a way that may not be of benefit to the true owner, the grower.” He is encouraged that the majority of providers and suppliers he works with have fairly strong data protection agreements and rules.

Gingerich Farms’ Gingerich ran into a situation where he was trialing a hybrid for a company, turned over plot data, then got a call from a third party doing analytics to clarify some of the information. “We didn’t know they had that. We knew it might happen, but we didn’t know how much they were going to get. As far as we know it was just one field, but we don’t know if it was more,” he describes. “We’ll be resetting some passwords just in case they have access to some of that.”

Data Ownership & The Law

A key part of the privacy debate is data ownership, and the issue was part of last fall’s Congressional hearing.

Dr. Shannon Ferrell, Associate Professor and Ag Law Expert with Oklahoma State University, testified that in the scheme of federal trademark, patent and copyright law, “there is really no good fit for agricultural data.” He does say one could argue that ag data could be protected under state law as a trade secret, but here again the application is not very clear.

“I believe true ownership belongs to the farmer, the data creator,” says grower Tom. “We are the ones who are purchasing the equipment and paying for the service to collect, manage, analyze, and store the data.”

Ferrell says the other big concern in the privacy debate is protections against unauthorized disclosure of agricultural data, from both ATPs and government organizations. Growers can only harness the value of big data “if we can foster an environment in which they are comfortable sharing their data,” he says.

Indeed, Pete Clark, Head of Ag Connections (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Syngenta), says his team’s biggest concern about the use, security, and privacy of growers’ data is that other companies in the space will misrepresent their data use policies and intentions. Syngenta’s AgriEdge Excelsior program digitally organizes data across devices. The company guarantees that information is captured confidentially, and growers control data entry and access.

Clark sees varied levels of concern among growers about data privacy and security — those that completely trust the software platforms companies offer; those who are only comfortable with inputting their data if there is a strong relationship with the data management provider; and that portion of growers who are largely apprehensive.

More Technology Providers Weigh In

A highlight of recent efforts to sort out data privacy is the rights/usage agreements companies offer for growers to sign. Producers need to take the time to read through, understand, and ask questions about end user agreements for the different platforms they use to know if they are comfortable with what may happen to their data, advises Ben Craker, Global ATS Partnerships and Standards, AGCO.

“We are all for utilizing the data to further enhance the agricultural community, but strict measures need to be in place to make sure the anonymity of each farm’s data is kept secure,” says Tom. “The biggest concern we have at the moment is securing our information. Our processes, prescriptions and output are unique to our operation, just like it is to any other farm, which is how we set ourselves apart.”

The team at AGCO would agree, says Craker. The company maintains two customer information pipelines — one for machine data and one for agronomic data. The agronomic information can include yield maps, as-applied or as-planted information, and prescription maps for variable-rate jobs and other pre-planned work.

“AGCO knows this data is often the secret sauce a grower has for raising their crop, and it respects the privacy needed for this type of information,” says Craker. “AGCO does not access, aggregate analyze or even request sharing of this data.”

Ag Leader saw data protection as a concern early on, says Kaleb Lindquist, Product Sales Specialist – Software Solutions. The company addressed the issue right out of the gate when it released its AgFiniti cloud-based platform. “Within our Terms of Use there’s a section that addresses data ownership,” he says. “It clearly states that the data housed is the property of the grower, and the only persons that have access to it, and ultimately use it, are the grower and the advisors that that grower specifically grants access to.”

Ryan Molitor, Marketing and Business Development Operations Manager at Raven Industries, believes that growers are not adopting more precision ag technology because of privacy concerns. “They have questions around who owns the data, who has access to it, and what they would do with it,” he says. “They really understand the benefits of adopting more precision technology, and are even looking at upgrading a lot of their existing equipment with more technology, but want to understand the data side much better.”

Molitor explains that Raven is active with several programs regarding data privacy and standardization. This helps his team to be involved and make sure the company’s equipment stays current with the direction of the industry. More importantly, it gives Raven an opportunity to provide a voice for its customers, including their challenges and concerns, he says.

Kansas State’s Griffin outlines a particular unauthorized access concern. He describes a scenario where a hacker might access a grower’s data system and plant incorrect information. In the Great Lakes region, for instance, an “ecoterrorist” might insert phosphorus overapplication data to make a grower look bad — in a region where algal blooms in Lake Erie have been blamed, in part, on fertilizer runoff from agriculture.

Ultimately, Griffin believes when the data portion of the ag industry is mature, there will be only one repository of ag data — and several groups are in a race to be the repository left standing.

“People ask me who it is, who the successful company will be,” he says. “I don’t know, but I can kind of weed out who it’s not. And it may be one that doesn’t exist today. We’re at the infancy of this whole thing right now, but it’s moving quickly.”

Gingerich Farms’ Gingerich feels that if all data is “lumped together,” there needs to be some monetary compensation to growers, at least a reduction in equipment costs if they’re going to participate. “There needs to be some benefits on the producer side,” he emphasizes.

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