Electronic data collection similar to that used in aircraft and defense systems is on the farm now, and more is coming. But that has not made it easier for farmers to accept.
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Their concerns about these new systems are many. Is the data that is collected from planters and combines accurate? Is it easy to use? Who sees it? Can this farm data be used by outsiders to manipulate markets? Can it be sold?
Yet, the potential benefits of big data are equally numerous. Field production history will be at a farmer's fingertips to make mapping and nutrient applications easier. On the horizon is software that will allow for equipment management from the tractor cab or from the home office miles away.
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"I think we are going to see some sizable increases in yields," says Brian Marshall, a Maysville, Mo., farmer who employs data collection on his equipment. "Going forward, producers will get better at looking over their data and making better decisions."
However, Marshall, like many, has his concerns. He has not yet placed his farm field data on cloud storage, which many systems use. Instead, he prefers keeping it on his farm.
"I just haven't signed up for the programs," he says. "I am not totally opposed to cloud storage. I like the idea of the data being backed up as you are going through the field."
Farm data security
Cloud storage systems have been common for years, but concerns remain. Can the information be hacked, putting the farmer at risk? Can it be retrieved by Freedom of Information Act requests? The well-publicized data breaches at Target, Home Depot and other businesses also have farmers concerned their data could be stolen.
The American Farm Bureau is very concerned about those possibilities and this year adopted a policy that acknowledges data collection is a valuable tool for farmers but needs to be managed wisely. It provides guidance on agriculture data collection, who owns it and contract terms.
"This is the new biotech," says Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Some farmers have used it [farm data collection] for about three years, and some farmers have heard of it, but are uniformed of its risks."
Farm Bureau's next project is working with an independent third party to monitor and report on ag-tech providers, ensuring they do what they say they will do.
Ease of use
In addition to security and farmers' rights, the massive amount of ag data that will be collected has to be timely and easy to use.
"We have collected so much data, we don't know what to do with it," says Marshall. "We are going to get better at analyzing it."
Tom Stoy likes the idea of electronically tracking his farm equipment through fields to coordinate the refilling of seed bins on his planters or measuring yield data during harvest, but for that to happen, the information has to be accurate, timely and easy to use.
"I want the data to automatically find its way back to the office," Stoy says from his Indiana farm.
Currently, that is not happening. The information extracted from planters, sprayers and combines has be to downloaded and analyzed before it can be usefully applied.
"We have to go through all of it," Stoy says.
Farmobile, located in the Kansas City suburb of Leawood, is addressing that need. It just finished beta testing a product that collects data from farm equipment and seconds later feeds it back to the farmer in easy-to-understand language.
"The data has not been portable. We have made that data portable," says Brian O'Banion, Farmobile's director of sales. "Our system plugs into any implement. Once plugged in, we are able to pull the data from the tractor and whatever implement they have attached to that tractor."
The farm data is retrieved to a cloud storage system and formatted into an easy-to-use form.
"We are formatting it into readable material that they can use and they can access that right on the spot," he says.