My 88-year-old mother can’t figure out how to retrieve a text message from her flip-phone; in fact, she can’t retrieve and listen to a voice message. Communication with Mom is dependent on her availability to pick up the phone or an 800 mile roundtrip to Ohio. By the way, don’t try to teach her how to retrieve either voice or text messages—it won’t be a happy ending for teacher or student.
Mom still writes checks or pays cash. I think she has a credit card for show, but it’s never seen the light of a website order form.
Even though my mother isn’t tech savvy, I’m sure she helps populate more than one retail company’s information database. That’s the world in which we live. Quite frankly, it’s a little creepy to think Google has information about my kids that I don’t even know.
Many companies spend lots of money to find out as much as they can about all of us. This pursuit of information is done in a variety of ways: retail “reward” cards, credit cards, website visits, retail purchases, cell phone usage, television viewing habits, and the list continues.
Imagine the terabytes of information being stored about all of us in some back room of the Silicon Valley. They have a name for it: Big Data…pretty original huh? I’m not sure why it’s not called Lotsa Data or Data O’ Plenty, but Big Data it is so that’s the way we’ll roll.
Of course it’s one thing to offer up information in exchange for 35 cents off your next toilet paper purchase, but an altogether different discussion when that information is shared or sold to a third party. It is this point that has framed one of the biggest discussions in agriculture during 2014 and one that likely will continue into the current year.
The progression to Big Data in agriculture started innocently enough when global positioning systems (GPS) were fitted for tractors and self-propelled farm machines. Coupled with other gizmos and gadgets, GPS made it possible to develop harvest yield maps of fields and eventually allowed for variable rate applications of inputs such as fertilizer, seed, and pesticides.
Initially the system was closed; the data was stored on an on-board computer and the farmer could share it with whomever he or she wanted or nobody. Often it got shared with a second party who helped in the development and interpretation of the yield maps. Many times these maps were layered over other data containing soil fertility and topography information.
Technology never stops. Similar to Wal-Mart, large agricultural companies such as John Deere, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto, and Winfield quickly saw the value in collecting data from these on-board computer systems. In exchange for providing the farmer a host of maps, analysis, and predictions, individual farm information was conglomerated with that of other farms. Eventually Big Data status was reached.
These large data sets would lead to the development of complicated algorithms that provided, for example, specific information on where a particular corn hybrid proved to be best suited based on soil type, fertility, plant density, planting date, and environmental conditions. Predictive recommendations can now be made based on large sample sizes rather than just across a small district or single state.
This is all good, right? After all, the amount of data or knowledge behind a prediction defines its strength. But what happens if the holder of the data decides to sell it to a third party? It becomes a question of who owns the data — the company or the farm business from where it came? What if a third party purchaser wished to use the data to get an early handle on planted acres for speculating on the futures market?
Recently the American Farm Bureau Federation, major commodity groups, and agriculture technology providers met to hash-out an understanding on the wide range of issues surrounding the collection of individual farm data. The principles of ownership, collection, security, transparency, and availability were addressed and agreed upon.
Though some actions such as grain market speculation were prohibited, others remain fair game at the discretion of the farm client. In some instances third party sharing may still occur, but farmers will be given the choice to opt-in or out through consent agreements. Bottom line: Read the contract.
The practical uses of tracking technology beyond only data collection are just beginning. Already companies are coding and following crates of produce from field to grocery shelf. The day will come when consumers can point their cell phone at a cantaloupe to retrieve field-level information such as when and where it was harvested. You’ll also be able to see a picture of the farmer. This is already possible with the use of QR codes.
More and more, large food retailers and wholesalers are requiring food be grown using a defined set of standards. How can these standards be substantiated? Today it may be by written forms and farm visits, in the future it more likely will be by real-time tracking.
There is no way of knowing where the limits of tracking technology will take us. Farmers and consumers will benefit, but not without growing pains. One thing we can be sure of: The benefits will come at price measured by your dollars and data.
Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County