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Picking a data partner

By analyzing what data and science are telling growers, digital agriculture promises to help make more informed agronomic and business decisions. As these systems evolve, an increasing number of alliances are being formed to share production data.

“Different platforms working together are great, because that allows growers, along with trusted advisers, to get more value out of the services and products they are already using,” says Jason Tatge, Farmobile CEO.

While a data-sharing platform may put growers in the driver’s seat when it comes to how their information is distributed, ag tech providers have not always done a good job of communicating that message. “Problems arise when owners of the data feel as though they no longer understand who is accessing their data and why,” Tatge says.

Recent backlash as a result of a partnership announcement between Climate FieldView and Tillable provides an interesting example.

Setting the Record Straight

Launched in 2015, FieldView examines weather, soil, and field data to help farmers identify factors that could limit yield. Today, the platform includes over 90 million acres and has connectivity agreements with more than 60 companies.

Tillable was created in 2017 not only to help landowners get paid a fair rent for farmland but also to help farmers find more acres to expand their operations. There are over 12,000 growers on the platform today.

Near the end of 2019, the two companies stated Tillable would join FieldView’s partnership platform. The platform let farmers access third-party services and also elect to share data with services they subscribed to. When farmers received unsolicited rental offers from Tillable in early 2020, they assumed the information was pulled from Climate’s platform.

“I heard some offers were too high and some were too low,” says Todd Janzen, Janzen Ag Law. “Other offers were alarmingly close to current cash rents that could be derived from FieldView data.”

The reality, say both Climate and Tillable, is absolutely no connectivity had even been established between the platforms. “It was clear that misinformation was being shared among farmers at the time this discussion came up,” says John Raines, chief commercial officer, The Climate Corporation.

Tillable CEO Corbett Kull says landowner information was pulled from the property tax database because it’s one of the best ways to market to landowners. However, the database doesn’t define if the landowner is a farmer or a nonoperating landowner, so both were sent a letter.

“Offers were formulated by an algorithm using publicly available data from USDA and USGS, which takes into account factors like soil rating, average county rent, and average county yields,” Kull says.

Regardless, many farmers were convinced their data had been compromised. Taking to social media, the accusations exploded as many piled on to express disappointment and concern.

“For a landowner, Tillable could suggest you might be able to get more rent for your ground,” says Doug Applegate, who farms with wife Kathy and sons Brent and Luke in Oakland, Iowa. “As a renter, it makes it look like your data is being used against you.”

To control the damage, Climate quickly ended an agreement that had barely begun. “As it became more clear what farmers perceived as the value proposition of Tillable, they voiced their concerns and they voiced them loudly,” Raines says.

What the grower wants, says Kirk Wesley, is going to become even more important in these relationships. “Growers are at the center of all of this,” says the Case IH Advanced Farming Systems marketing manager. “They drive – and will continue to drive – who we bring on our platform.”

Farmers should clearly understand the privacy policy of each company they do business with and how it applies to their data
Photo credit: Peter Garrard Beck, Getty Images

The Fine Print

Janzen says, “This should be a wake-up call to farmers that unrestricted data sharing can have unintended consequences.”

Data sharing on FieldView, Raines counters, is not unrestricted. “Prior to its launch, we set an industry standard: Farmers own their data and only they can choose whether or not to share their data with third parties.”

Going forward, farmers need to clearly understand every company they do business with, what its privacy policy is, and how that policy applies to their data. Likewise, the alliances being formed should come with clarity about what each partnership entails.

“This should also be a wake-up call to ag tech providers who think no one will ever read their agreements, so they can make them as vague and one-sided as possible,” Janzen says.

Clearly stating how farmers’ data is being used, Kull says, cannot be overcommunicated. “If you have a question or are upset, call me up so we can talk about it.”

Is Blockchain the Answer?

By putting blockchain at the core of its DataStore, Farmobile wants to enable the data to not only be protected but also be reverified on a regular basis.

“First and foremost, data privacy is a combination of using tools like blockchain and having clear permission structures in place for any data transaction,” Tatge says. “You have to have both.”

The company’s patented technology ensures every transaction in the DataStore can be tracked, immutably recorded, and reliably audited. Only authorized individuals have access to data they have personally purchased, licensed, or uploaded through the exchange.

“Blockchain as a part of any data sale should be viewed as the gold standard for building farmer trust,” he says.

Social Media Backlash

Based on feedback from its customers, The Climate Corporation terminated its FieldView platform integration agreement with Tillable on February 14, 2020. Farmers believed their data privacy rights had been violated, and took to Twitter to voice their disappointment. Here is a sampling:

  • “Climate did this simply because they suddenly woke up and realized this could cost them more than it could profit them. They don’t care about a farmer’s data privacy. Unfortunately, it’s really all about the mighty dollar for the big companies.”
  • “You lost a pile of ‘valued customers’ from this little charade. Even if you terminated your agreement with Tillable, it’s too late.”
  • “If it isn’t Tillable, it will be some other company. Farmers’ data will be shared to the farmers’ detriment. Hopefully, this is a wake-up call to many on the value of their data.”
  • “Much trust has been lost, and your actions will need to be 100% transparent to regain farmers’ respect.”
  • “How many high-profile financial firms have had data breaches that put  personal information at risk? Contracts and security agreements are only as good as the individuals and security behind them.”

“Communication and collaboration with farmers, that ultimately leads to trust, is the backbone of the business we are in,” says John Raines, Climate chief commercial officer. “The last thing we want is to be unclear, so we recently posted an easy-to-understand statement about our data privacy policy in a number of online forums.”

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