Safeguarding Your Data

Farmers these days aren't just farming crops; they are farming data. Farmers are producing and storing a ton of data thanks to the advent of precision agriculture. Close relationships with vendors, however, raises sticky ethical and business questions about who owns the data and how it should be shared. Here's the latest on this controversial subject.

By: Ben Potter, Farm Journal Media

Ask any farmer about who owns their farm data, and the response is often immediate, if not laughable.

"Who owns the data? I do—and that’s the way it should be," offers Illinois farmer Brian Corkill.

Corkill has been developing customized field prescriptions for the past decade, working with a third-party consultant. He has data use agreements in place, so he’s comfor­table with the value he has reaped from sharing on-farm data. That comfort level is not universal across the farm community right now, however.

"I’ve talked with several guys, and there has been some skepticism around using the cloud and data sharing," he says. "How do we know who actually has access to it? People don’t always understand exactly how it works."

The truth is, data is not an abstract in agriculture anymore. It has manifested itself as Monsanto Company’s FieldScripts, John Deere’s, Trimble’s Connected Farm, AGCO’s Ag Command and other products. That also means today’s producers aren’t just raising crops—they’re also farming data by the gigabyte.

The benefits are apparent: Those who can harness this data can make better management decisions and reap higher yields and profits. However, with the big data movement comes concerns about how agribusiness are using this data, who they are sharing it with and how they are keeping it secure.

How you’re protected. One challenge of data privacy and security has been how to categorize it from a legal standpoint, according to Shannon Ferrell, associate professor of agricultural law at Oklahoma State University. Various experts have investigated farm data privacy as a potential component of trademark, patent or copyright law, to no avail. The best current framework is to treat your farm data as a trade secret, he says.

Under the Uniform Trade Secret Act, farm data could be considered "information, including a pattern … that derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known … and is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy."

Legalese aside, data privacy and security ultimately comes down to the agreement reached by farmers and their service providers, Ferrell says. That means the not-so-fun task of reading the small print is an essential one, he says.

"When you sign up for a service, you have to read the terms of the service agreement," he says. "Make sure you’re comfortable with them before you sign anything. Public enemy No. 1 is signing off without reading the agreement. It happens all the time."

Another reason it’s important to read service agreements is the variability from company to company and even from dealer to dealer, Ferrell says. Some equipment dealers understand the critical nature of data privacy agreements and have begun including terms in their service agreements. Others have not yet clearly specified their terms, although there’s mounting pressure to do so.

If you don’t like the terms (or if they aren’t defined), don’t be afraid to negotiate your own data usage agreement, Ferrell adds. Just make sure to have it in place before you buy—many tractors’ telemetry functions are activated as soon as they come off the assembly line.

"It’s talking from the time it’s born, so to speak," Ferrell says. "So you’d better have a data agreement in place at the time of sale. It can be hard to unring that bell."

Treat It Like a Trade Secret

If you want to truly treat farm data like trade secret information, there are five ways to protect that information, explains Shannon Ferrell, associate professor of agricultural law at Oklahoma State University. Consider adopting the following practices on your operation:

1 Make sure the service agreement is executed before any data is shared.

2 Define what data is to be protected as a trade secret.

3 Establish what the party receiving the data must do to keep the information private.

4 Set out the uses the receiving party can and cannot make of the data.

5 Require the receiving party to cooperate with you if it receives a legal request for the data.

Give and get. Data sharing is a two-way street, says Illinois farmer Steve Pitstick. "I’m willing to share my data to get my field prescriptions perfected," he says.

Pitstick was a beta tester for FieldScripts in 2013 and used it again the following crop season. With FieldScripts, "more data points perfect it," he says, so he provides multiple years of field history to help fine-tune the scripts.

Pitstick says he was once hesitant to share data but warmed up to the idea once he saw the return on his investment.

"I was scared to give up my data two years ago, but as I see the value now, I don’t hesitate to give it away," he says. "You have to find out what the benefits are to you. Open the curtain just a little bit and see what you might get out of it."

The process of using and sharing data and privacy is highly individualized, Ferrell says. Farmers who direct gigabytes of their data to third parties can stand to reap big rewards if they can capitalize on smart analysis and improved field prescriptions. Others who want to keep their data to themselves have the means to do so.

"Find the balance that’s right for you," Ferrell suggests. "There’s no right or wrong approach."

As more farmers have tuned into the potential opportunities and challenges of big data, so have more agribusinesses made attempts to be more transparent about their own data access and privacy policies. The Climate Corporation and parent company Monsanto were the latest to commit to more transparent data use and privacy principles.

Climate Corporation CEO David Friedberg says many technologies are met with a barrage of "what ifs" that can be disconcerting. This move is intended to head off some of those "what ifs" at the pass.

"We’re just trying to be proactive and clear," he says. "We’re taking a significant step toward building trust. We state very clearly that farmers own the data they provide to us, and we will only use the farmer’s data to enhance the services we provide."

Friedberg also announced the creation of the Open Agriculture Data Alliance, an independent body that will promote common data formats as well as security and privacy standards. More details on this group will be rolled out in the coming months.

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) released a statement soon after The Climate Corporation’s announcement. "Overall, we see this as an important step toward securing widespread cooperation on big data issues that affect all sectors of production agriculture," explains Bob Stallman, AFBF president.

The organization has shown support for practices such as requiring companies to fully disclose how they will use data they collect, developing standardized privacy protocols and maintaining the right to access a farmer’s own data, regardless of when it was shared.

There is a bit of variance across the industry when it comes to data privacy and security, notes Chris Batdorf, product market manager with John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group. But Batdorf says a breach of trust by any company would damage the reputation of the entire industry.

"It’s important to be transparent about what we will and won’t do with the data," Batdorf says. "Even though we’re a 176-year-old company, we have to grow with the ever-changing needs of our customers."

For example, he says the company has worked hard to establish the underlying architecture that would allow safe, secure wireless data transfer. With this groundwork in place, a farmer’s production data can get to his or her computer instantaneously without concerns.

Another goal is setting up the farmer to receive the best data possible, Batdorf adds. That could mean anything from proper equipment calibration to consistently labeling files, he says. Because of that, the local dealer is often one of the most critical assets of big data collection.

Questions you should ask. Thinking about big data tends to bring up questions, says Matt Bechdol, an Indiana farmer and founder of GeoSilos. Don’t be afraid to ask them.

"Data in every sense of the word is an under-realized asset on the farm," he says. "I look at data as part of the biological manufacturing process. There has also been an explosion of options in the marketplace right now, so the questions you should ask are getting more important."

Farmers need to ask questions so they understand the terms of data ownership, access, whether it will be aggregated, level of anonymity, third-party involvement and even protocols around leaving a service provider, he says.

"We are a family farm, so we live by these questions, as well," he says. "The road is pretty clear when you have the conversation, but most people don’t have the conversation."

A little anxiety about sharing farm data with third parties is natural, Bechdol adds, but don’t let it drive you away from the potential benefits.

Informa Economics and GeoSilos partnered this past year to develop an intensive study on big data and ag informatics to better define it and look at how it’s being used across the agriculture industry.

The bottom line—some big questions still linger around big data, but the industry at least seems committed to address­ing those questions and getting answers.