Big Data or Big Brother?

07:42PM Feb 09, 2015
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Discussion at CIRB meeting illustrates the opportunities and concerns for farmers who use precision agriculture.

Big data may offer tremendous opportunities to improve agricultural productivity and efficiency, but gaps clearly remain between farmers, the government, and ag technology providers on privacy, usability, and more.

The issues emerged Friday at the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau’s annual meeting, during a panel discussion between Tom Worth of the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, Bev Paul of the American Soybean Association, and Deb Casurella of MyAgData. CIRB's Tara Smith moderated the session.

For Worth, big data is nothing new. With crop information from 600,000 growers over 20 years, “we’ve been dealing with big data for a while,” he said. “Our challenge is to ask what it means in a crop insurance context.”

What is new? The growing volume and specificity of that farm data. Worth illustrated his point with slides that showed a faint, barely visible outline of an area of Illinois that represented what the agency used to have, followed by a far more detailed map that showed areas of high and low yields.

He thinks even more information would be better, allowing the agency to be more efficient and perhaps offer more customized coverage at lower cost to farmers. “What I’d like to be able to have is everything that’s happened on the crop insurance program on that piece of land,” said Worth.

That type of desire for farm data worries others, even as they see the value in precision agriculture and the information it collects. “It’s a different world that it used to be,” said Bev Paul, who serves as the American Soybean Association’s Washington representative. “Many people are not comfortable with that.”

Paul noted the financial irony of many precision ag arrangements: “Farmers wonder, ‘If my data is so valuable, why aren’t you paying me? Why am I paying you?’” she said.

Some—even those within the precision agriculture world—worry that the accuracy of farm data today could expose farmers to unexpected compliance challenges.

Deb Casurella, whose firm offers the cloud-based system MyAgData, highlighted the debate over the measurement known as Common Land Units or CLUs commonly used for crop insurance versus precision agriculture data.  “The CLUs are not precise,” said Casurella. “A person is looking at an image and drawing lines based on FSA rules.… The precision ag data is sub-inch accurate. So which is better for insurance purposes?”

It may depend on your point of view. According to Casurella, using precision ag data typically reduce a farmer’s insured acreage by an average 6 percent compared to CLUs. That of course lowers the crop insurance premiums, but it also reduces any potential indemnity payments.  

Such discrepancies could prove problematic for farmers, the government and the precision ag industry going forward. “Today, it’s very hard with the program rules across the [Farm Service Agency] and the [Risk Management Agency] to report accurately and not be penalized,” Casurella said. “That doesn’t mean [farmers] aren’t reporting correctly. It’s that they’re not reporting precisely.”

How comfortable--or concerned--do you feel about your digital farm data? Would you be willing to provide more precise data in order to save money? Why or why not? Let us know on the AgWeb discussion boards.