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Data ownership: Whose numbers are they?

Data. A buzzword in agriculture, its management is vital to success. Yet, it has become a four-letter word as farmers and agribusinesses alike try to define who, exactly, owns the valuable information lying within the numbers gathered through technology.

“The typical response I give is, ‘Whoever is the source of the information; who actually collects it,’ ” says Paul Welbig of Raven Industries. “In most cases, that’s the grower. However, there are instances when a service provider has access to the farmer’s data. It then becomes the provider’s decision as to who has access to that information and to whom they’ll share it.”

While it may seem obvious to some that the farmer owns the data being gathered; to others, it’s not so clear.

“Some machinery manufacturers hold that the data generated by the machines they build is their sole property, regardless of who has possession or ownership of the machinery, and they have stipulated that fact in their dealer agreements,” says Todd Hopkins, general manager, Garden City Farm Equipment, Inc.

While ownership of data is at the core of the debate, the real question is how sharing the information extrapolated from the data can benefit an industry expected to grow enough product to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

“The answer to the data debate lies within how the information will be disseminated,” explains Welbig. “It has to come in a form that is anonymous, so no particular farmer or operation is identified.”

Historically, farmers and competing ag retailers have made clear their distrust of sharing data with peers, so how do you convince them to do otherwise? Anonymity, many believe, will be key if farmers are going to even entertain such an idea.

“The industry has to show producers there is a value in sharing that information, yet it doesn’t have to be drilled down to specifically identify a farmer’s name and location,” he says. “It could be done in generalities and still be beneficial to the industry as a whole.”

Yet, he knows not all farmers will be on board.

Grower concern

Farming is a competitive arena. Maintaining that edge means keeping statistical information close to the vest and only sharing it with trusted advisers.

“Anytime you’re talking about data, it’s personal information. Trust is a very, very big component of that,” says Welbig.

For Iowa farmer Jim Meade, the debate is twofold:  What is the data being discussed, and what is its value?

“We see what is happening in social media as websites capture data and try to use it to target advertisements,” he says. “A lot of the data mining is not done with our knowledge or permission.”

As a landlord, Meade says he writes into the lease that he get a complete copy of any data results from the farm, including yield data and soil samples.

“That affects the rent and sale value of the farm, and I want to know it,” he notes. “Anyone who is not willing to share data results won’t get to rent my farm.”

On the flip side, as a tenant, Meade believes he has the right to any data he pays for. “I believe it’s reasonable for the landlord to ask for that data if it affects the land in any way.”

As the industry moves forward, the bottom line will be what’s in it for farmers.

“To me, that’s the value-add,” says Welbig. “There’s a lot of information out there. Data is a big word and a big topic. Automating it makes it more challenging, because you’re going to get more of it.

“The value is in how all of this data can be presented and summarized in a way that makes sense, is correct, and helps growers make a decision,” he says. “Possibly, producers will then see a correlation they had no idea was there.”

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