Monsanto’s Plan Puts Focus On Data

PERSPECTIVE  I recently returned from the Agricultural Retailers Association Annual Conference in San Diego where, in addition to the usual networking, I got to host a modest roundtable of ag retailers to talk about the issues of the day. If you’re a grower reading this, hang in there … this is for you too.

The discussion eventually got around to technology, and toward two topics in particular. The first was a question I had: Do retailers feel that Monsanto’s Integrated Farming System, a program that is designed to turn grower planting and harvest data into yield-enhancing hybrid and variety recommendations that growers will pay for, will be a threat to their own precision/agronomy services business?

In general, the retailers around the table, virtually all with pretty robust agronomy services programs in place, did not feel particularly threatened by the service. The concept of providing a “black box” solution is an inherent problem for retail agronomists who believe in and sell the concept that “all agronomy is local,” but none felt it would threaten to displace them.

On the other hand, one participant who is working with Monsanto on IFS felt it might be beneficial to have that recommendation on the table each spring. Part of the issue is that for many (although not everyone), plant population is a relatively new science that few feel they have a strong handle on. And it’s tough to argue that the seed company knows less than anyone else about the seed they sell.

Some retailers were more concerned about the effect on their seed business – the rigorous training requirements Monsanto places on retail agronomists who facilitate the IFS program, and the relatively low return on that training and people investment were at the top of the list. The pilot program rolling out in 2013 will be an interesting test of Monsanto’s approach we will all be watching carefully.

But this led to an even more interesting discussion about something deeper: grower data. Of course, for Monsanto’s program to be successful it will need its growers to provide a lot of field data so recommendations are as on target as possible. Will most growers be willing to submit data to Monsanto? If the past is prologue, we need only turn to Roundup Ready crops. It would have been hard to imagine in the year 2000 that it would take less than a decade for Roundup Ready corn and soybeans to dominate more than 90% of the corn and soybean markets. But the clear value, and the need to be competitive, overcame objections about a company that had not courted the growers’ favor in those early marketing years.

That’s a pretty … no, actually a VERY high value bar that Monsanto set, and one that will be virtually impossible to match through seed selection and plant population recommendations. The cost will have to be carefully set, and the rewards reasonably reliable for growers to buy in. But given the value of a bushel of corn or soybeans it doesn’t take much … at least not as much as it used to.

But getting back to the data: my questions to you all are, who owns this information, and how do you feel about the Monsanto plan? I think it’s clear that the grower owns the raw information he or she collects through soil sampling, planting, inputs and harvest, but what happens when a third party turns this information into an actionable plan? Or uses it in aggregate both to improve the robustness of its recommendations AND to generate more revenue?

Relative to the total population of American farmers, this has happened for years on a relatively small scale with early precision agriculture adopters. Retail agronomists and consultants, and some software companies have been doing this for years with the consent of growers who have embraced the benefits that data processing and aggregation can provide. But Monsanto’s entry into the market will open this up to millions of growers who may not have considered the question of data ownership … including those who have considered it and don’t like the idea of sharing.

As I said, this coming year will be one to watch and listen. By this time next year, we’ll have a much clearer picture of where IFS will be going, and how growers are feeling about it. My feeling is that this will be a bumpy road, as Monsanto delivers its value message, growers weigh it up, and retailers and consultants work to maintain their place as the local agronomy experts.

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