Data Becomes Cash Crop for Big Agriculture

For six generations, Ben Riensche’s family has tended corn and soybeans outside Jesup, a town of 2,500 on the windswept plains of eastern Iowa, writes Andrew Marc Noel on But today he’s harvesting a valuable new crop from his 12,000 acres: information. “The future is simply data analytics and tech,” says Riensche, who still has his grandfather’s handwritten notebooks containing everything from the bushels of corn he brought in to the number of eggs the chickens laid.


In the half-dozen years since he signed up for a data analysis service from Climate Corp., a unit of Bayer AG, Riensche has reduced the seed he uses by 6 percent and the fertilizer by 11 percent while growing his best crops ever. “Before, there was no secret sauce other than just keeping notes and making field observations,” he says. “Now we have all these digital tools.”

Information collected by farmers — yields, fertilizer use, crop rotation, rainfall, and dozens of other data points — is catnip to the likes of Bayer, Syngenta, DowDuPont, and BASF. The companies feed it into software that predicts combinations of seeds, fertilizers, and sprays to maximize yields. That can boost sales of their products while also padding the bottom line from subscription fees farmers pay for recommendations on what to sow and when to spray. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a farmer’s machine shed and all their yield data for the past 15 years is sitting in spiral notebooks on the shelves,” says Mike Stern, who heads Climate Corp. He says Bayer can digitize that material and combine it with historical information, then sell it back to farmers. “Data is the new currency,” Stern says.

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