The rise of “big data” in agriculture is both an opportunity and a challenge for farmers who collect information from their farms. Increasingly, there’s a worry about how that data can be used and the value of the data to both the farmer and third-party companies.

During the 2014 meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the group expressed concerns about data and passed a policy statement that outlines what it believes are important issues surrounding farmer data. In a statement issued by Bob Stallman, AFBF president, he says: “Proprietary data collected from individual farms is valuable and should remain the property of the farmer. As innovation and technology using this data expand to provide farmers new management tools, protecting the privacy of this data is paramount.”

At about the same time, The Climate Corporation announced its new privacy policy, which sets a new tone for protecting farmer data. The company also announced the creation of the Open Agriculture Data Alliance to act as an independent body that will “ensure that different platforms share common interoperability, common data forms, and security and privacy standards.”

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Corporate policy

Climate Corp., acquired by Monsanto late in 2013, is already on track with new services for 2014 (see story on Page 12). Monsanto is also working to pull its data services into one group, creating a formal connection between Climate Corp. and its FieldScripts tools and services. And Climate Corp. is entering into an agreement with WinField to enhance that firm’s R7 Tool.

As Climate Corp. moves forward, CEO David Friedberg explains that “technology is moving quickly and changing our world. As wireless smart sensors become ubiquitous and cheap, we’re seeing an explosion of data, and we’re getting a better understanding of the world around us.”

Friedberg says with this data, it will be possible to drive smarter and better-informed decision-making for managing crops for higher yield and profit. But there is uncertainty about how that data will be used while maintaining control of a farm’s private information. He says Climate Corp.’s privacy approach keeps the farmer in mind.

“Farmers own the data they supply, and they control who can access the data they provide,” he explains. “And they can easily remove their data from our system.” He adds that the company will not sell customer data or give it to any third party.

As part of this new policy, the company is also providing data services free of charge. This would allow a farmer to create, store and access that data to “enable the valuable services we intend to provide,” Friedberg says. Essentially, this free, online storage is like an off-farm computer file folder where you keep your data. You can share information from it with others, but the data remains yours.

Friedberg also says its approach to managing data and data privacy will be subjected to third-party review by an outside firm that can assess how Climate Corp., and Monsanto, are doing the job. The company is talking with a few firms that audit these types of practices, but a final auditor has not been chosen.

This new privacy policy will extend across Monsanto, unifying FieldScripts, Climate Basic, Climate Pro and other services offered by the company. You can see that policy at climate.com/principles.

Open data standards

One challenge of eventually sharing data is having data from one machine that’s usable to others. For example, if you collect harvest data on one platform, the information should be readable by your co-op’s applicator for a better prescription map — not always the case.

Friedberg has announced creation of a new independent group, the Open Agriculture Data Alliance, that would work to ensure that those different platforms can “talk” to each other. “[The group would create] an open set of [application program interfaces] and dialogue on that effort,” he says. “It would create interoperability standards, security and privacy standards for data use.” The alliance was announced in late January.

A farm’s individual data can have added value if it is anonymously aggregated for analysis. For example, a specific hybrid’s performance across a key geography could be captured from individual farmer data and collated to create a better analysis of its performance.

Friedberg says if a farmer stores data on the free data service, it won’t be touched, unless the farmer grants permission. “We may ask the farmer to use their data to enhance the services we offer or use to research specific yield models for nitrogen application. We would ask each farmer for permission to use that data.”

Friedberg came from Google and understands concerns over data privacy. “When Gmail was announced, there was a lot of concern. It was new, and we gave people a lot of free data storage, but there was hesitation. Now people are comfortable with it. We’ve seen the same concerns with [other advancements].

“We want to be proactive and get in front of it, and make it clear that our intention here isn’t to disadvantage farmers, but to advantage them and deliver new value,” he says.

Evolving business

Climate Corp. rolls out new products for 2014 for enhanced crop management.

Managing weather risk has been a solid business for The Climate Corporation, which got its start five years ago marketing risk management products that paid on losses hitting farmers based on complex weather models. The company evolved into a full-fledged marketer of crop insurance, and starting this month, it’s branching out with two new products for farmers: Climate Basic, which is free, and Climate Pro, which is a fee-based service.

Climate Basic can help farmers track conditions in a field and keep them better informed about decisions on the go. And it’s available either online or as a mobile app to download to their phone. “They can get to all of the information on their farm,” says James Ethington, vice president of products, Climate Corp. “And that will continue to be offered free.”

Ethington explains that farmers see the value of the weather information they can get through Climate Basic, and it is “hugely valuable information they need to make decisions.”

With Climate Basic, farmers can track weather for their location — which the company is well-known for having online. Once farmers register to use the service, they can also track crop growth stages for their area and log scouting activities on their farm. They can even set up alerts for weather events happening in their fields.

Those alerts can range from precipitation in a specific region to hail notification when detected for a field. For example, if you set a specific amount of rain for a field, you can get a text alert on your phone when rainfall exceeds that level.

Going Pro

While Climate Basic offers a range of services for free, stepping up to Climate Pro gives access to various crop-modeling tools. Ethington says farmers will have access to more complex information for decisions about planting, nitrogen management, and pest and disease management that will help with crop decision-making.

“Farmers can drill into each decision,” he says. “There is information about the cost-benefit analysis of a decision around a particular practice, or how to treat a disease, and it’s tied into one, central, easy-to-use framework.”

The system builds on what Ethington calls the Climate Technology Platform, which has three pillars. The first is hyper-local weather monitoring, which offers a “high degree of accuracy and resolution, and what’s happening in each of those fields, including rainfall, temperature, wind speed and humidity.”

The second pillar is agronomic modeling that uses that data to show what’s happening in the field. “We’re modeling for a particular crop, for a particular soil in that field, and how it will play out for the crop,” he says.

And finally, there’s a weather-simulation pillar the company has been doing since it started. The system can project an entire growing season for possible outcomes as it relates to weather. Pulling together a range of weather information, Ethington says, it can look at what’s “likely to happen with weather this year.”

Cost for Climate Pro is $15/acre for corn and $7.50/acre for soybeans. Learn more at climate.com.