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A bumper crop of “big data”

Quentin Hope

Farmers are racing to finish harvest, but corn and soybeans aren’t all they’re pulling out of their fields. Farmers are also pulling in bushels of data – yield data that can be mashed up with soil maps and climate records to make precise prescriptions next year for planting seeds, applying fertilizer, and spraying herbicides.

Big data is at the cutting edge of agricultural technology and most farmers recognize they need to use it or risk falling behind. Precise planting and fertilizer applications could help them make more money by pushing production on fertile ground while holding back resources on acres with poor soil.

Major ag corporations like John Deere, DuPont and Monsanto are eager to grab a stake in this growing sector. The Climate Corporation, owned by Monsanto, says its data tools are being used on around 15 percent of U.S. farmland.

Startups are competing for business, too. FarmLogs, an independent Michigan-based company, says 15 percent of U.S. farm operations have signed up for its cloud-based services.

It’s hard to get a good read on just how many farmers are using these tools, except to say it’s growing quickly. An ongoing survey of equipment dealerships has shown sharp increases in precision services. The most recent USDA survey shows 61 percent of corn farmers using yield monitors and about 22 percent using variable-rate applications. But that’s from 2010 – a world away considering the pace of change.

Farmers are embracing ag data but as we’ve reported they’re also concerned about who might have access to their data, and what they’ll do with it.

It appears little has changed. A recent survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation – which has preached caution when it comes to sharing data – shows 75 percent of respondents were concerned their farm data would be used without their permission for regulatory enforcement or commercial activities.

Unlike the piles of grain flowing out of fields right now, farmers aren’t so eager to see their harvest data on the market.