Who Owns Your Farm Data?

June 12, 2014 02:24 AM
Who Owns Your Farm Data?

There are some things you need to ask technology consultants—and agree to—before you hand over your on-farm data.

One of the over-arching promises big data holds is its potential to help you produce higher crop yields. In the process of harnessing that potential for your farm, you will need a technology partner or a team of advisors to work with, someone you trust to provide data analysis and next-step recommendations. Consider these suggestions as you evaluate potential partners and develop a working plan to move forward.

Define and agree on who owns your data. The matter of ownership has been difficult to define on the road to implementing big data, Any company or individual worth his salt will tell you that you own the data, but what does that mean? Do you own the raw data, aggregate data or both? There are no legal safeguards currently in place spelling out how you retain ownership of data, according to Shannon Ferrell, an Oklahoma State University agricultural law professor. His advice: treat your data like a trade secret, much like Coca-Cola protects its soft drink recipe. Expect potential service providers to treat your data the same way, and tell them as much.

As part of the ownership discussion, discuss the matter of control. Tell service providers to spell out where your data will be at all times and who will have access to it.

"Growers need to be more aware and conscious of the data that is going off their farm and being collected on their behalf," says Steve Cubbage, owner and president of Prime Meridian LLC, Nevada, Mo.

He adds: "If actual possession is 9/10ths of the law then most growers might not even ‘own’ their data. Keeping the original data from monitors and other paid services like soil sampling is very important."

Ask your potential data consultant about their security practices, encourages John Fulton, an Extension research expert on precision agriculture at Auburn University. He tells farmers to ask these three questions: 1) What assurance is provided that no one other than those with permission can access the data? 2) Is all my data password protected? 3) What additional security do you provide?

Why should you care about data security? Because it’s good for business. Big data use on the farm is still in its infancy, and no one can say with complete confidence how it will be used in the future. Keeping control of your data will help you be ready to take advantage of opportunities when the time comes to benefit from them.

Read the fine print. Scouring the fine print in legal documents is as about as much fun as watching paint dry, but make yourself read it. Too often, company contracts are vague about who can review or use your data. In some cases, you’ll find the service provider contracts indicate the provider can share your data with a business partner. The issue with that is the farmer typically has no binding contract with a third party, says Matt Erickson, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) economist. AFBF is working with leaders in the big data arena to make the language in contracts more consistent and transparent across the agricultural industry.

"We want contracts to spell out all uses of the data in a way that’s boldfaced or highlighted," Erickson says.

He adds that most companies have a set of guiding principles that they say they operate by. Evaluate any "feel good" statements the company talks about or advertises to ensure they are parallel to the wording used in legal documents they ask you to sign.

Plan for a win-win relationship. Both you and your partners will offer valuable insights and expertise during the implementation of big data for your farm, and it’s important to define and agree to each of your respective roles.

Fulton says that the service provider needs to "ensure an individual farmer has more than ample opportunity to provide input during the analysis step. More times than not, the farmer’s insight as a data layer will provide more meaningful input than all other data layers."

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