Growers are sharing their information to make better decisions.

Scott Annexstad of St. Peter, MN, first became involved in precision farming when he tested a prototype yield monitor with GPS in 1994. By the 1996 crop year, he was fully invested in precision farming technologies. Now with three years of good data, he says, "I know this information has value, but quite honestly, much of the value has been hidden to us. By sharing and comparing information with other growers, we could all make better decisions and put some value behind the time and money we've spent on monitors and mapping."

Annexstad is one of about 35 farmers in southern Minnesota who are pooling their precision farming data into a regional database to more quickly realize the value of their precision farming investment. The database is managed by GeoFARM, located in Lake Crystal, MN. The company is owned and operated by a consortium of independent crop consultants who have hired a GPS information specialist to manage the data. Bernie Paulson, McPherson Crop Management, says, "Precision farming software tools are continually being upgraded. It's expensive and time consuming to keep up with it all. By partnering with other crop consultants, I can offer cutting edge analytical tools. Plus, I have the time to do what I do best work directly with producers in the field."

A thousand acres. Maggie Jones, Blue Earth Agronomics, adds, "GeoFARM is a place where interpretation, implementation and local aggregation of precision farming data can occur. Data by itself are abstract, but when they are linked to a network of local consultants and farmers who share their findings, they can be used to make really good management decisions. The consultant link is extremely important."

The company provides mapping, data storage and data analysis to precision farming customers as an authorized regional SST Information lab. In this first year of full-scale operation, it expects to warehouse and analyze data from 40,000 acres. Farmers will receive their individual reports, plus various aggregated regional reports. "We've put a lot of effort into making the reports and analysis statistically valid," says Jones.

Annexstad is excited about the company's capability to compare variety performance across several characteristics such as soil type, fertility level, pH and other management factors. "I can have greater confidence in my hybrid selection if I can see how the new hybrid that I planted on 20 acres performed on 1,000 acres under similar conditions," he says. With the speed with which new hybrids are being introduced and replaced, this provides a much needed tool.Guy Ewald, a client from Waldorf, MN, concurs, "By sharing information, we'll all benefit. We'll multiply our experience with a variety, a chemical or a farming practice on a certain soil type and that will let us make sound decisions faster. I've had a yield monitor for six years and have been yield mapping for three years. Now I'd like to finally come to some conclusions on these things."

Wayne Molitor from Nicollet, MN, adds, "By combining our data, we'll see patterns sooner and we'll be able to make decisions sooner." Another tool is cross classification, which can assimilate multiple years of yield data and other information to create management zones for fertility, weed control or insect sampling.

Gigabits and gigabits of data. Beyond the knowledge and understanding that can come from aggregating data, farmers also are interested in data warehousing for the physical management and storage of vast amounts of information. For example, Illinois farmer Kent Western has four years of precision farming data from 800 acres of cropland that occupy 60,000 computer files. Several years' worth of yield and other precision farming information becomes a valuable asset that farmers don't want to inadvertently lose due to a computer malfunction.

More companies, more data. Deere & Company, Farmland Industries and Growmark recently formed a joint task force to look at ways of managing the large amount of data being generated from precision farming. "Growers have expressed their interest in the establishment of some type of database that would be open to all farmers for storing, retrieving and analyzing their production data with complete security and privacy," says Bernie Hardiek, president, worldwide agricultural equipment division, Deere & Company.

Input suppliers are similarly investigating data management services. Ag Chem offers a Soilection Archival Service for agricultural spatial data, including field boundaries, soil samples, as-applied data and yield data. Helena Chemical Co., Memphis, TN, recently announced it would become an authorized SST Information lab with specialized software, staff and training programs designed to efficiently process and analyze site-specific data. Initially the lab will service 11 Helena retail facilities in northeastern Indiana and northwestern Ohio. Eventually the lab will be run as a profit center and will offer its services to farmers, farm managers, consultants, rural appraisers and other ag retail establishments.

Data ownership and privacy. Farmers are concerned about data ownership and privacy when considering participation in a "data warehouse." They recognize that their combined data are valuable to ag retailers, university researchers, regulatory agencies and many others.

"When joining GeoFARM, my first question was about privacy and confidentiality," says Annexstad. "Other businesses don't give up information for free and there is no reason ag should be an exception to that. If they want our precision farming information, they should have to pay for it."

Western agrees, "I'm very protective of my data. It's mine and I want a piece of it if it's going to be shared with anyone." In addition to farming, Western provides precision farming data warehousing and analysis services to other farmers. "I have a marketing remuneration' clause in my contract with farmers so they will share in any profits from the sale of their aggregated data," he explains.

As farmers consider participation in a data warehouse, they should demand that data ownership and use be addressed in a contract that both parties sign. Generally if a person pays for a service, he or she legally owns it. Beware of complimentary services, notes Western.

GeoFARM's data use and ownership agreement states that any data shall remain the sole and exclusive property of the farmer client. The agreement also authorizes the company to aggregate the client's data with any other data for the purpose of improved decision support tools and management reports. The right to sell or share aggregated data is left to the company. "Our farmers have said they would consider selling the aggregated information if it reduced their costs of participating in GeoFARM," says Jones. The cost of participating in the program varies depending upon the services desired by the client, but a basic package would cost about $3/acre.

For more information, visit GeoFARM's Web site at www.geofarm.com.