By Johnathan Hettinger
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools. www.investigatemidwest.org
Just nine of 30 agribusiness companies have followed through on a pledge to implement the Farm Bureau's 2014 "Core Principles" for transparency in the collection of farmers’ data.
Among those who have yet to do so are some of the industry’s biggest players – Monsanto, Dow DuPont, John Deere and CNH Industrial, the equipment manufacturing company that makes both the Case IH and New Holland brands of combines, tractors and other equipment.
The initiative, began by the American Farm Bureau Federation four years ago and supported by these very same companies, led to the creation of an online tool – the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator – to help farmers make better decisions on the tech companies that offer them data services.
Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that the project hasn’t taken off as quickly as the organization hoped.
“We certainly had hoped to have a lot more, so we are disappointed,” Thatcher said.
New Technology Spurs Data Collection
In recent years, state-of-the-art technology has started to help farmers collect data in their fields, including projected yield and rain totals, to make business decisions such as when to work their fields and how much fertilizer and pesticides to apply.
However, when data is collected in a field, that information is uploaded to a cloud-based system hosted by an agriculture company, which also has access to this information.
In 2014, the American Farm Bureau Federation raised concerns about how companies collecting farmer data were using the information.
In response, the farm bureau launched its “Core Principles” – guidelines for agribusiness companies that collect farmers' data to ensure the data is used transparently.
These principles included making sure farmers knew what data was collected, why and that it not be reported to anyone without farmer permission.
The group of 30 agribusiness companies all agreed to implement these principles in their data usage agreements.
The farm bureau tasked Todd Janzen, an Indianapolis-based lawyer, to develop an evaluator.
The Ag Data Transparent “seal of approval” is a process designed to ensure that companies use these principles with an extensive questionnaire and an annual membership fee that ranges from $2,000 to $6,000.
The data agreements undergo a third-party review to make sure they comply with the core principles. If so, then the company can use the seal.
Slow Adoption Among Large Agribusiness Companies
Janzen, who developed the evaluator, testified before Congressional committees in July and November.
“We had hoped definitely that companies would participate more quickly,” Janzen said in an interview. “There is no reason that anybody cannot participate. What we are evaluating is transparency, so, for the most part, we don’t say what the right or wrong answer is, we make sure companies say what they’re doing.”
Janzen told the committees that farmers had a lack of trust when it came to who was using their data, citing a farm bureau study that found 77 percent of farmers are concerned about who can access their data on the cloud.
Janzen said then that most farmers trust traditional agribusiness companies but seem to be more wary of start-ups.
“Clearly, some of the bigger players are waiting to see how the effort takes off or are unsure whether they can meet the certification standards,” Janzen said in a recent interview.
Big Ag Company Reasons for Not Joining Vary
Sue Mantey, a spokeswoman for DuPont, said that the company was waiting until its merger with Dow in August to apply for the seal of approval because they would likely be updating their policies after the merger.
Chelsea Shepherd, a spokeswoman for the Monsanto-owned Climate Corporation, said that the company helped found the initiative and is working to get the seal of approval.
“At Climate, we have been very clear since the initial launch of our digital ag product offerings on how we will and won't use farmer data in the development of our products, and we remain committed to providing farmers with the utmost transparency on how their data will be used,” Shepherd said.
Thatcher, of the Farm Bureau, said she isn’t sure if farmers realize the value in the seal.
“I don’t know whether we’ve gotten our message to rank and file farmers as well as we should have,” Thatcher said.
Dan Danford, global industry relations manager of precision solutions at equipment manufacturing company CNH Industrial, said that they have yet to hear from farmers who are looking for this seal, though the company plans to get the seal in the future.
“We believe in it, and we’re going to get certified,” Danford said. “But we haven’t reached the tipping point for customers yet.”
He said the company is working to make sure its data collection and usage processes are good before it applies.
“It’s very complicated,” Danford said. “It’s kind of a chicken or the egg situation, we’re trying to improve our systems and then focus on the seal of approval.”
Who is Joining?
The nine companies to get the seal of approval are either farmer-owned or not the “name brand” agribusiness companies, like John Deere and Monsanto.
Growmark, a network of supply and grain cooperatives that operates under the name FS, is one of the companies to adopt the technology.
Ron Milby, executive director of agronomy market development and technology at Growmark, helped lead the effort to get companies to sign on.
“We’ve always said that the farmers own this information,” Milby said.
Growmark uses the data collected to help farmers make better decisions, Milby said.
“We want to be able to work with this information to help keep that farmer profitable long term," he said. That’s something that’s really near and dear to our hearts.”
Agrible, a digital ag company based in Champaign, Illinois, which focuses on helping farmers make informed decisions about management practices, is one of the other eight companies to sign on.
Agrible's system collects data that shows how farmers run their business, said Jason Little, director of sales. This includes weather, the best days to work your field, yield information and how much pesticides and fertilizer are applied.
He said he sees it is important for farmers to protect this data.
"That is not data we use. It's the grower's data. It's always the grower's data," Little said.
He said that they only use aggregate data with the grower's permission.